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Easy access to government documents is essential to a healthy democracy. As a federal election approaches, Canada needs to do better. (Shutterstock)

With election ahead, we need to make public records truly public

Citizens require access to public records in order to become properly informed about the activities of their governments and to provide sound feedback on government policies, plans and programs.

However, many Canadian citizens have learned through experience that freedom of information (FOI) legislation is not properly serving citizens.

As a result, they lack information and informed interactions with their elected representatives, and are reduced to musing about public affairs with other citizens.

As a federal election year dawns, an alternative approach is needed — and soon, because the relationship between citizens and governments is under serious challenge. Claims of “fake news” are too often displacing discussions that are based on evidence.

Read more: The real consequences of fake news

An alternative approach is readily available, whereby citizens have access to public records in a manner consistent with living in a free and democratic society, and the principles of transparency and accountability of governments are more than just buzzwords.

Failure to provide access

Let’s focus on access to the records of municipal governments, which are often claimed to be the governments closest to the people, and which have the most direct impact on citizens.

The 2018 municipal election campaign in Ontario serves as an excellent case in point. Citizens, journalists and candidates have faulted municipal governments for failing to provide appropriate access to municipal records including budget documents, project contracts, police service reports and development proposals.

Unfortunately, freedom-of-information legislation has proven of little value to citizens.

Access to records is limited to what governments provide. Making a request and learning its status are often frustrating exercises. The cost can be prohibitively expensive for many citizens. Responses are often sub-standard and useless compared to what citizens could ascertain if given proper access or opportunities to analyze files.

A voter casts his ballot in the New Brunswick provincial election in Dieppe, N.B. in September 2018. Effective freedom-of-information legislation would allow Canadians to make informed decisions when it comes time to vote. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

To put the failure of FOI legislation in context, and underline the urgent need for a new approach, freedom-of-information discussions began more than 50 years ago.

Two major forces behind the movement were the digital technology revolution and activist members of society who insisted upon knowing what governments were up to.

The digital revolution began with mainframe computers as the base for electronic data processing, followed by numerous innovations in computers and communications, remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS), with offshoots such as listening devices and tracking capabilities for surveillance.

Freedom-of-information concerns did not initially focus on the technology, but on the rapid increases in the capacity of governments to acquire and use data, information and knowledge about people, entities and events in an increasing variety of ways.

The subject of a British comedy

Thirty-five years ago, technology and freedom of information received popular attention from the British TV series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister and from the movie Big Brother Is Watching You, based on George Orwell’s 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“Open Government,” the first episode of Yes, Minister, brilliantly dismissed the idea of allowing British citizens to access the central government’s records:

BBC Archives.

The phrase, “Big brother is watching you,” meantime, summarizes many of the concerns about technology enabling authoritarian and even totalitarian initiatives almost 70 years after Orwell’s dystopian novel was published.

American street artist Shepard Fairey’s Big Brother posters are seen in London in 2007. Tim Rich/Lesley Katon, Flickr

Public activists, on the other hand, put emphasis on questioning how we are being governed, and their advocacy for open government is based on several principles: A duty to know what governments are doing; timely access to government records; and, since government records are bought and paid for by citizens through taxes, fees, tolls, fares, fines, levies, etc., access to records is a right.

These beliefs are pillars of citizens’ open government movements, and point to five conditions that I believe are necessary, and readily achievable, to significantly improve citizens’ access to government records.

Five requirements

Free access. Charging fees for access is gouging, because citizens have already paid governments to produce these records.

Easy access. “User-friendly” includes removing bureaucratic hurdles that waste citizens’ time. Google, for example, demonstrates how to design intuitive access procedures that are easy to use.

Timely access. Efficient searches occur when keywords lead to the links for reports, images and other records, including data and information bases. At the municipal level, timely access involves links to maps and other geographic information because approximately 80 to 85 per cent of municipal data and information holdings are based on location.

Direct access. Fifty years ago banking changed significantly due to automated teller machines (ATMs), with mobile devices leading to more changes. Banking shifted from moving paper and metal currency into the information-processing business, and is a highly credible precedent for governments to provide citizens direct access to public records.

Online access. Governments already inform Canadians via websites, and there are many reasons for governments to better serve citizens via online access to public records.

The right to free, easy, timely and direct online access to public records is a defining feature of a free and democratic society, and represents an invaluable hallmark of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s time that right actually existed.

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