Right to Know

This is an older post which I saved as a draft and never published – until now. It’s still not finished, but what good is it just sitting in my draft file. I will endeavour to finish it soon.

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I attended the Faculty of Civil Law’s Right to Know Day yesterday in honour of Germain Brière and the 30th anniversary of Canada’s passing of the Access to Information Act.

The panelists were all top-notch and the theme of the day, well, obviously, was Right to Know. It occurred to me more than once yesterday that librarians today have by and large lost touch with the underlying principles of Right to Know – the legislation AND the fundamental concept. By the end of the day, it was clear that there is confusion between the open data movement which librarians are supporting to the ends of the earth and the more broad and radical right to information, about which we have all but forgotten. Which is not unlike the majority of Canadians, as I also discovered yesterday.

One of the later panellists, Arnold Amber, brought this point home. Mr. Amber lives in Toronto where he has access to four daily newspapers which he can buy and another two free papers that he can read if he takes public transit. How could anyone complain about access to information in that context? Canadians  in general do not feel deprived of information, yet our government consistently has ranked very low (55th place out of a total of 95 countries with ATI laws) on the international Access to Information rankings. Why and how is this?

Before getting into it, let me explain the difference between open data and access to information, two fundamentally different concepts; one that is wholeheartedly embraced by the Canadian government (and librarians) and the other which is actively neglected and even suppressed by government (and librarians?). Open data refers to sharing of large sets of data which do generate from government or can also be born by others such as private corporations. These data are not personal in the sense that individuals can be identified; these data are aggregated and compiled so as to make comparisons with other groups of data possible. For example, one could compare access to clean water  on reservations in Ontario to access to clean water  somewhere else. These data can certainly be used to write better policy and change laws, and I as much as anyone else hope that they do improve the lives of citizens around the world, Canada included. Any attempt to use these data for such purposes ought to be acknowledged and I do no wish to take away from the potential successes that open data affords various governments to improve the lives of citizens.

The right to information, however, is an entirely different ball of wax and one which is nearly ignored by Canadians and librarians altogether. The right to information includes the right to know what our government does; what it purchases; its supply chains; the amount it pays for goods; the processes used in tender; who is hired, and how much they are paid; information on government programs, policies and staffing. In other words, the right to information is about the accountability of our elected officials towards the citizens. This is far more controversial than open data, and is a topic of public discussion where librarians are generally absent, though along with lawyers and public servants, academics and activists, they do have a role to play and could be exercising their considerable experience and knowledge in a very productive way.

What are the obstacles to accessing important information which enables transparency, discourages corruption, includes taxpayers and citizens part of the elements contributing to decision-making instead of the sorry losers in these decisions after the fact? Believe it or not, one of the main factors is the fact that there is very little awareness or support in government for record-keeping and information management. That’s right – the simple record-keeping; filing, file-naming, storing and retrieving records is one of the big problems facing government; and yet, in my generation of information studies at least, record-keeping was a strong presence in the faculty. Perhaps not the most exciting stream when examined from a purely technical point of view; but when viewed in light of ATI, record-keeping is essential to a healthy democracy. Kevin Page, the former PBO and lately appointed visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, described a government that not only is not interested in due diligence in terms of record-keeping, it has moved to “oral decision-making” where there is no trace of how government operates; an intensely worrying state of affairs.

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Guide on “Access in the Academy: Bringing ATI and FOI to academic research”

Guide on “Access in the Academy: Bringing ATI and FOI to academic research”

“Access to Information and Freedom of Information  are ‘dual purpose’ devices with complicated  and implications. They operate in the service of transparancy and accountability, and in so doing, as  LaForest notes, they facilitate democracy. But they  also circumscribe the limits of transparency by codifying a range of exemptions and quasi-exemptions that curtail access and legitimize government secrecy.

ATI/FOI mechanisms regulate the interactions between groups with competing interests and reflect what philosopher Sissela Bok refers to as the politics and ethics of concealment and revelation. Some Canadian ATI/FOI regimes are reasonably
effective from a public interest standpoint, while others are so out-of-date or dysfunctional that they can reasonably be described as “broken”. From the standpoint of an academic, though, ATI/FOI mechanisms of all types can be incredibly useful – and
despite growing interest, they remain underutilized by the Canadian scholarly community. 

Individual researchers can use ATI/FOI mechanisms to gain access to otherwise unobtainable “back stage” government records, but in so doing, they – we – also make these records accessible to others and contribute to the broadening of the pool of publicly-accessible information. In this sense, all ATI/FOI research, regardless of whether and in what form the results are published, leaves a mark in the public domain.”