open government data (scrabble) by justgrimes (CC BY-SA 2.0)

open government data (scrabble) by justgrimes (CC BY-SA 2.0)


What Open Government Hides

Treasury Board President Tony Clement unveiled the latest version of his Open Government Action Plan last month, continuing a process that has seen some important initiatives to make government data such as statistical information and mapping data publicly available in open formats free from restrictive licenses.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes there is much to like about Canada’s open government efforts, which have centred on three pillars: open data, open information, and open dialogue. Given the promise of “greater transparency and accountability, increased citizen engagement, and driving innovation and economic opportunity”, few would criticize the aspirational goals of Canada’s open government efforts. Yet scratch the below the surface of new open data sets and public consultations and it becomes apparent that there is much that open government hides.

The federal efforts around open data have shown significant progress in recent years. What started as a few pilot projects with relatively obscure data has grown dramatically with over 200,000 government data sets now openly available for use without the need for payment or permission. Moreover, the government has addressed concerns with its open government licence, removing some of the initial restrictions that unnecessarily hamstrung early efforts.

However, the enthusiasm for open data has not been matched with reforms to the access to information system. Despite government claims of openness and transparency, all government data is not equal. There is a significant difference between posting mapping data and making available internal information on policy decisions that should be released under access to information rules.

Indeed, while the government has invested in making open data sets available, it has failed to provide the necessary resources to the access to information system. The Information Commissioner of Canada has warned that inadequate financing has made it virtually impossible to meet demand and respond to complaints.  Regular users of the access to information system invariably encounter long delays, aggressive use of exceptions to redact important information, significant costs, and inconsistent implementation of technology to provide more efficient and cost-effective service.

In short, the access to information system is broken. An open government plan that only addresses the information that government wants to make available, rather than all of the information to which the public is entitled, is not an open plan.

The efforts on open dialogue and open government suffer from similar shortcomings. The government and its agencies have embarked on public consultations on many issues in recent years: the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission asked Canadians for their views on broadcast regulation, the Competition Bureau consulted on advocacy priorities, and House and Senate committees regularly hold hearings on new legislative proposals.

Yet open dialogues and consultations mean little if the outcomes are pre-determined and the public input is largely ignored.  This form of consultation is properly characterized as “consultation theatre”, where government seeks to claim consultation with no discernable impact on the resulting law or policy.

For example, last week the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs wrapped up its hearing on Bill C-13, passing the lawful access/cyberbullying bill with no comments or changes. The hearing included many voices (I appeared in a personal capacity), but Carol Todd, the mother of cyberbullying victim Amanda Todd, was excluded after she expressed concern with the privacy implications of the bill. Similarly, Daniel Therrien, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada appointed earlier this year by the government, advocated changes during his appearance that were ultimately ignored.

Open dialogue and public consultations do not mean that the government simply follows whatever advice is offered up through the process. However, if the consultations or hearings are little more than theatre, claims of open government or open dialogue mean very little.

Open government – whether open data or dialogue – offers great promise to provide a more transparent, inclusive and efficient government. Unfortunately, ignoring issues such as access to information and genuine efforts to incorporate public input into policies means that for now open government is most notable for what it hides.


  1. Ha ha. Open consultation. What a frickin’ joke. In addition to the “consultation theatre” examples cited, the most famous and egregious has to be that coast-to-coast copyright reform consultation road-show the government did. That was absolutely nothing but theatre.

    Harper: Simply be honest and don’t waste our time and money with your theatre. If you don’t really want our input, just tell us that. Oh, but wait. You want to be re-elected don’t you? So that’s why all of the theatre.

  2. Hello, as we mentioned earlier my family and I have contact the Justice Department Of Canada through the freedom of information act numerous times and they will no longer answer our requests for information. My wife has also tried and they are ignoring her too. It has been 6 months we have been waiting and they are ignoring us and The Privacy Commissioner Of Canada will not help either of us. We initiated an investigation with the Ad-Hock Privacy Commissioner but we haven’t heard anything from him either, it has also been 6 months. We contacted Steven Blaney and we were sent a reply saying his office would get back to us but it has been a month and a half and still no reply from him. They majorly violated our human rights and tried to use us as patsies then tried to have us murdered to cover it up and now they are trying to sweep it under the carpet and think we will forget about it. They are not there to protect anything except their pocket books. We have a court date set for this month to sue our landlord that is working for them. We met him through Craigslist and he tried to set us up for arrest but we seen right throught his stupid plan. He moved a bunch of agents in to try and start trouble with us and as soon as we were hip to what he was doing he moved the agents out and he will no longer come by and talk with us. He won’t call us or come by to collect his rent money. We seen him twice and tried to pay our rent to him and he ran from us both times. So we applied for a court hearing to force him to take our rent money. Never seen that before in our lives, a landlord running from rent money. Follow the money. Thanks for reading.

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  4. Stuart Farson says:

    The Access to Information Act has long been broken. I waited 6 years for one request several years ago. What has surprised me recently has been the length of time that it now takes “to consult.” 90 days used to be the norm. In a very recent request, SIRC demanded 150 days. Have you found this to be the new normal?

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