Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ontario government wants suggestions for open government

The Ontario government tells use that they want to hear our ideas on their "Open Government" consultations.
"Submit your idea for the open government consultation 
We want to implement new open government commitments that help make Ontario more open, transparent and collaborative. We need your help. 
Your ideas could be used to:
  • improve access to government-held information
  • strengthen accountability and transparency
  • increase public participation in government decision-making
  • expand the use of technology to make life easier for people
For inspiration, check out commitments from other governments around the world.
Read the submission criteria below and submit your idea by August 26, 2016. 
We will report back on what we heard during this consultation throughout the summer and fall of 2016."
I will try and not let my extreme cynicism on this topic colour what I have to say next. Okay I lied.

I have absolutely no faith that the government of Ontario will heed anything we say on their decision to hide abortion information from the taxpayers of Ontario.

That being said, I think we should still give them our comments. We get so little opportunity in Ontario to participate in democracy (other than elections) that every opportunity we get to tell them how they could actually become open, transparent and accountable (because clearly they are not at the moment), we should seize on. If enough people did this maybe things would change. Probably not. But maybe.

So I hope you will fill out their survey. Comments must submitted by tomorrow, Friday August 26.

Here are a few ideas for you based on my own experience dealing with both the federal and provincial (ontario) access to information laws in Canada.

One of my points below is about fees for freedom of information requests that I do in Ontario (FOIs) and access to information requests I do federally (ATIPs). Both the province and the feds can charge for the work involved in providing information access requests. But my experience has been that Ontario is more apt to charge those fees than the feds are. 

All information requests (both for Ontario and federally) require a $5 up front fee and I have no problem with that, it's the subsequent processing fees that can be hundreds of dollars which make them prohibitive for the average person. Newspapers make access requests all the time, but they would have budgets for that, regular citizens do not. So it becomes very difficult to do information access requests when you are expected to fork out (In some cases) hundreds of dollars.

Access to information quidelines are always supposed to default to making information easily available in a timely manner. The practice though, is that there are so many exceptions, this rarely happens. There are limits defined as to how long you should have to wait, usually 30 days. But you almost never get the information in that time. Because of the numerous escape clauses they write into the access to information laws, they can always quote some section of the act, and tell you this is why there is a delay. I've waited up to a year at times for information and even longer.

Anyway below is what I will be submitting to their survey. This would would go a long way to making the Ontario government actually being open, transparent and accountable. Because I can assure you. They are not open, accountable or transparent now. 
  • The government's decision to exclude abortion information from the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FIPPA) should be rescinded. This change affects all access to abortion information, even when there is no identifiable personal information like hospital names, doctor names or patient names. There is no privacy concerns at all with making this data available. This change was made to FIPPA without public consultation, and without debate in the legislature. This fact goes against the very goal of this survey which is about open, transparent and accountable government. The Information and Privacy Commissioner said in 2000, in regards to a similar situation, where an organization was refused abortion information by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care said: "In my view, to deny access to generalized, non-identifying statistics regarding an important public policy issue such as the provision of abortion services would have the effect of hindering citizens' ability to participate meaningfully in the democratic process and undermine the government's accountability to the public."
  • When government asks for input (like this survey), the results of the input itself should be made public.
  • Don't charge excessive fees for Freedom of Information requests. The $5 initial fee should be all that is required for an FOI. 
  • Access to information held by government departments should be provided in a timely manner. The practice currently is that there are so many exceptions to the time limit (usually 30 days), that this rarely happens. One almost never gets the information in that time and one usually has to wait months to get it.
  • When a citizen writes a letter to the premier or to a Minister, responses should a) be prompt and not take months, and b) should answer the questions asked, and not obfuscate and or write form letter responses. I have dozens of examples where my questions were never answered. Ministers and the premier should be accountable to the electorate, and not only by saying the words that they are accountable, open and transparent, but they should actually be open, transparent and accountable.
A final quote from Kathleen Wynne, Premier of Ontario:

"Our Open Government initiative will help create the transparent, accessible government the people of Ontario deserve. This is part of our vision for One Ontario, where every voice counts."
I hope you will also fill out their survey. Because you absolutely do deserve an open transparent government.

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