Major Review of Access Laws Put Off For Two Years, Brison Says
The Liberal government kicked off its new strategy for open government Thursday but a key election promise for a major review of the antiquated Access to Information Act will be put off until 2018.
Treasury Board President Scott Brison said the government is overhauling the act in two stages and will first begin with quick fixes by introducing legislation this year to make good on some of the reforms promised during the election campaign.
They include ending fees for processing information requests; giving the information commissioner the power to order release of documents and extending the act to the offices of the prime minister, ministers and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.
Brison argued the two-phase approach was more sensible than trying to review the act all at once. He said this allows the government to move quickly on some reforms now and proceed with a “deeper dive” review based on the results of planned consultations with MPs and Canadians.
“We don’t want to hold up progress (on reforms) that can occur more quickly in the first phase by waiting and outing them all together,” he said following at speech at the Canadian Open Dialogue Forum in Ottawa on Thursday.
Brison said the government is launching two consultations. One is seeking Canadians input on a new open government strategy and another on reforming access to information laws. People can offer their views on what should be in the strategy at open.canada.ca.
The results of those consultations will be released in the summer.
A parliamentary committee is also studying the Access to Information Act, which has not been substantially updated since it took effect almost 33 years ago.
Brison argued Canadians’ input is critical to any reforms especially when the government is making open data, information and open dialogue the cornerstones of its open government strategy.
“We take seriously the importance of open dialogue on public policy and we believe we can believe we can move forward with some changes more quickly … but that doesn’t obviate the need for deeper consultations in 2018,” he said.
The Liberals have promised to make government “open by default,” a shift Brison says will be “monumental” culture change for the public service.
The onus will now be on government to explain why information can’t be released compared to now when it is up to Canadians to make the case for why they are entitled to information.
The previous government made progress in releasing data and making it available online. The Liberals want to expand that and give Canadians access to the information used to make policy decisions.
Canadians, interest groups and other stakeholders have long demanded more transparency and access to government data. All governments are also under pressure to include citizens early and at every stage of developing the policies and programs that will affect them.
Brison said the open government strategy will also be central to better policy-making and his drive to attract more millennials to work in the public service.
Brison wants to turn around the demographics of the public service workforce which is aging as baby boomers retire in coming years. The average age of new hires joining the public service is now 37.
He also wants to make it easier to move people from all sectors in and out of government and embolden public servants to take more risks.
“I see this agenda of open government as a real opportunity to engage a new generation of citizens and public servants,” said Brison.
Brison said a big problem is the government still operates in “silos” despite many efforts over the years to remove barriers and improve co-operation among departments.
He said the Liberals are partly responsible for public servants’ risk aversion after implementing more controls and rules in aftermath of the sponsorship scandal. He said the Conservatives “doubled down” and created more fear among public servants of making mistakes.
“We want intelligent risk-taking in government and you won’t get great public policy if you create a fearful cover-your-ass culture,” said Brison.”
Documents prepared for the prime minister say existing access to information regime is antiquated, time-consuming, expensive to manage and was drafted long before digital technology. Access to information requests have climed steadily and hit more than 61,000 iby 2014-15. The cost has also climbed from 5.