Speaking Notes for the Honourable Scott Brison, President of the Treasury Board, at Carleton University for Right to Know Week

Speech

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September 26, 2016

Good afternoon.

Thank you Suzanne.

You’ve been a staunch advocate for greater access to information in Canada and around the world.

It is also a pleasure to be here at Carleton University and I thank you for the invitation.

Frankly, I can’t think of a better place to kick off Right to Know week, which is being celebrated with events across the country.

After all, everyone here understands the power of knowledge and information.

This week is a good reminder of how lucky we are to be living in a country where every citizen has the right to request access to government records.

This is a democratic right that many citizens around the world simply don’t have.

So it should never be taken for granted.

Nor should we ever become complacent and assume that existing laws and mechanisms are up to date.

For example, our own Access to Information Act was passed in 1983, and it hasn’t been meaningfully updated since.

It’s badly out of date and out of touch with Canadians’ expectations today.

That’s why we promised to strengthen and modernize the Access to Information regime.

Across our government, I’m proud of our ongoing commitment to strengthening openness and transparency.

We are all guided by the principle that Government information belongs to the people it serves and should be open by default.

It was a main feature of the Speech from the Throne last December, and the federal budget in March.

Because we know that raising the bar for openness and transparency is both what Canadians expect, and it makes for better government.

If citizens understand why their government takes a particular course of action...

If they have been engaged from the beginning...

If they have access to the same information the government has...

They will have greater participation, more confidence and trust in the outcomes, the policy decisions we make together.

Better policy can co-emerge with broader understanding and public support.

But let’s be clear – enhancing Canadians’ access to government information is not easy.

It wasn’t easy back in 1983 when Canada became one of the first countries to pass Access to Information legislation.

And it won’t be easy today as we embark on a major overhaul.

To be sure, we are now facing a cultural shift in the government’s way of doing business.

We are talking about reversing the onus.

Instead of the onus being on citizens to make the case for why they deserve the information.

The onus will now increasingly be on the government to explain why it can’t release information.

That’s the principle of “open by default”.

As President of the Treasury Board, it’s my privilege to be leading our government’s efforts to make that vision a reality, in collaboration with my colleagues the Minister of Justice and Minister of Democratic Institutions.

My responsibilities are clearly outlined in my mandate letter – which was made public, along with all ministerial mandate letters of ministers for the very first time in our history.

Let me update you on the progress we’ve made so far.

Access to Information

Let’s start with Access to Information. Quite simply, the act is out of date. I think it’s a pretty good bet I won’t be the only one telling you that today.

This is not altogether surprising given how much our world has changed.

Today, information and data are produced, stored, and shared in ways we could have never imagined only 10 years ago.

Never mind back in the early 1980s when the Act received Royal Assent.

Email, social networks, and smart phones rule the day, and we need to modernize the legislation to reflect these realities.

The students in this room understand that better than anyone.

Smartphones have almost always been part of your reality, and you have become used to quick and easy access to information.

As we prepare the ground for new legislation, we have taken steps to improve access to information.

For example, we are now proactively publishing the titles of all briefing notes I receive on my department’s website.

Look it up. It’s easy. If you find one interesting, perhaps it can be useful in your studies, simply make an access request to get the full document.

This is part of our commitment to reverse the onus I spoke about earlier.

Rather than have Canadians dig around for information they may find useful, we are opening up our operations to the light of day.

Last May, we also waived all access fees apart from the $5 filing fee.

These were seen as an unnecessary obstacle to larger requests for information.

This was part of an Interim Directive issued this past May that also enshrines in Government policy the principle that government information should be open by default.

“Open by default” means publicly releasing government data and information to Canadians – except in limited situations which we all understand: for reasons such as privacy, confidentiality and security.

But it also means ensuring that – whenever feasible – requestors receive information in the format of their choice, in modern and easy to use formats.

Excel spreadsheets are a lot more useful to most of you than a paper copy. But they didn’t exist in 1983.

Next comes the heavy lifting.

This winter, we’ll table legislation that will bring forward significant improvements to the Act – improvements outlined in our mandate letters, along with improvements we will have identified through our consultations with Canadians, stakeholders and parliamentarians.

These measures will shed more light than ever before on the Government.

For example, we propose to give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of government information.

We also propose having the act apply appropriately to the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices – as well as administrative bodies that support Parliament and the courts.

These institutions are at the moment totally exempt from the Act.

We’d like to improve response times by addressing the problem of frivolous and vexatious requests.

And we will implement a mandatory five-year review. This will ensure the act stays up to date and consistent with modern needs and technology.

These are significant changes.

Take, for example, our proposal to give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of government information.

This would represent a sea change in the approach to access to information at the federal level.

In short, we are moving forward with a significant reform.

It will involve every department, Crown corporation, every minister's office, the Prime Minister's Office, the courts, Parliament, and the Information Commissioner's office.

But we won’t be stopping there.

After legislation is passed, and our full slate of commitments are enacted, we will be conducting the first full and now-mandatory five year review of the Act.

This review will conclude in 2018.

Our goal is to ensure that no future government allows the Access to Information Act to become as outdated and out of touch as it is today.

It’s worth remembering that there are about 240 federal institutions in the government currently under the act that provide a multitude of services to Canadians.

Which makes revitalizing Access to Information a complex but worthwhile endeavor.

Any changes must also respect important democratic values such as:

  • the independence of the judiciary,
  • the effectiveness and neutrality of the public service,
  • national security,
  • and the protection of personal information.

But let there be no doubt about our government’s commitment to getting it done and getting it right.

Action Plan on Open Government

The review of the Access to Information Act is a major pillar of our third biennial action plan on open government.

The plan was released earlier this year after extensive in-person and on-line consultations.

It is part of our international relationship with the Open Government Partnership and its 70 member nations.

Clearly, open government is becoming a global priority.

And Canada is leading the way with an ambitious set of commitments.

Many are based on the principle of “open by default" you’ve heard me talk a lot about today.

This includes our commitment to expand and improve open data.

The government has a massive repository of raw data that has the potential to transform how our officials make decisions, how citizens interact with us, and how businesses innovate.

This data can lead to the creation of new apps for your phone: on labour-market needs, car fuel-economy, housing
and rental prices.

Better-documented and therefore more relevant research on the part of our brightest minds, in places like these.

Or important considerations that you, as citizens, can bring to the policy-making equation, because you will now be better informed.

And this is why it is so vital that we make as much of it as publicly available to Canadians as possible – including businesses, individuals, charities, and so on.

We’ve already come a long way, and you can see that at open.canada.ca.

But we can do better.

Which is why we have committed to increasing the diversity, timeliness, and quality of data that we publicly release.

Through our plan to the Open Government Partnership, we have also committed to streamlining the requests of citizens for their own personal information held by government.

To that end, we are creating a simple, central website where Canadians can submit their request to any federal institution.

This will be backed up with a 30-day guarantee.

Should a request take longer than 30 days to fulfill, the government will be required to provide a written explanation for the delay to the requester and to the Privacy Commissioner.

To be frank, it is sometimes difficult to grasp the full potential for open government.

This is in part because of today’s rapid technological advances.

Everyone is adjusting “on the go.”

But being at the forefront of the technological revolution can help us to give back.

For example, Canada has committed to provide open data training to governments and civil society groups in developing countries.

This will lead to better harmony among data standards, which – in turn – will promote greater accountability and improve the effectiveness of funding for development across the world.

Today, I have just scratched the surface.

When it comes to open and transparent government, we are working on several fronts.

In our first Budget, we doubled existing resources for open government initiatives.

Beyond our new biennial plan and its 22 commitments, we are fostering more open debate and free votes in Parliament.

We have taken the partisanship and secrecy out of Senate and Supreme Court appointments by announcing two new, open, transparent and non-partisan appointment processes.

We’re currently consulting Canadians to update Canada’s dated electoral system.

And for those who like to “follow the money”, I’m proud of the work we’re doing to reform the Budget and Estimates processes.

We are making sure parliamentarians and the Canadians they represent can follow their tax dollars as the Government plans its expenses and actually goes about spending that money.

Conclusion

As the Prime Minister has said, “open government is good government.”

It strengthens trust in our democracy.

And ensures the integrity of our public institutions.

No matter if we think we have a strong foundation, the reality is that improving government is a job that never ends, and we don’t want to fall behind.

Our challenge is to build upon our strengths, and build trust with our partners: provinces, stakeholders, indigenous communities, public servants and Canadians like you across the country.

My part in this as the President of the Treasury Board is to modernize and open-up how the Government works, as part of our relentless pursuit to better reflect the values and expectations of citizens.

Thank you all for being here today and for your interest in this.


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