For Canadians, Right to Know Week is a time to reflect on our access rights and the importance of open, transparent government. This week, the IPC will spread the word about the public’s right to know by sharing resources about how individuals can exercise their access rights and how public institutions can make information more readily accessible.
The right to know isn’t just a “nice to have.” It’s essential to the healthy functioning of a democratic society. Access to information plays a critical role in ensuring transparency of government actions and decisions. It fosters civic engagement and trust in our democratic processes. When governments make decisions affecting people’s lives, the public has a right to know about it.
I first came to appreciate the real significance of the right to know at the International Information Conference in Mexico in 2005. There, I remember civil society groups and advocates from developing nations courageously speaking out not only about the lamentable absence of access to information laws in their jurisdictions, but the active bureaucratic obstacles deliberately put in place to block access to information and impede the ability of citizens — particularly women — from seeking out government services and exercising their rights vis a vis the state. The Declaration of Cancún, “Transparency and Accountability: A Commitment to Democracy,” co-signed by civil society groups around the world, captured it best:
“The right of access to information has no meaning if people cannot use information to improve the quality of their lives. Access to information must not simply belong to elites, but must be a daily component of participatory democracy, equitable development, and the struggle against poverty and discrimination.”
We are lucky to live in a jurisdiction like Ontario that has basic privacy and access to information legislation. But we can do more — much more — to ensure our laws stay relevant by keeping up with modern reality and implementing them in a timely, meaningful and practical way to bring about real transparency.
Under Ontario’s access and privacy laws, people can request access to both general records and information about themselves held by provincial and municipal government institutions. But the concept of ‘open government’ goes much further than that. One of its central principles is that government-held information should be publicly available unless there are legitimate legal, privacy, security or confidentiality reasons for it not to be disclosed.
The IPC strongly supports public institutions releasing information in the public’s needs and interests without waiting for people to ask for it. For example, people want to know how public money is spent. Proactive disclosure of procurement and other expenditure records can strengthen clarity and accountability of government spending, and may help reduce the time, costs and effort associated with access requests for both the requester and the institution.
In April 2021, my office released its four strategic priorities. These priorities serve as a road map for proactively addressing key access to information and privacy issues that matter most to Ontarians and where the IPC can have greatest positive impact in the coming years. One of those priorities is Privacy and Transparency in Modern Government. Our goal in this area is to advance Ontarians’ privacy and access rights by working with public institutions to develop bedrock principles and comprehensive governance frameworks for the responsible and accountable deployment of digital technologies.
Every day, the staff at the IPC works diligently toward achieving this goal. We have made great strides in expediting appeals through early resolution and mediation for the vast majority of cases. But we can always do better. This year, the IPC has initiated a review of our own Tribunal processes to find creative and innovative ways we can gain further efficiencies.
In 2021, we saw an increase in the number of freedom of information (FOI) requests across Ontario, with 55,578 FOI requests filed — a 26 per cent increase from 2020. These statistics represent a near return to 2019 pre-pandemic levels when 60,394 FOI requests were filed.
We also saw impressive response rates from institutions in terms of the percentage of access requests completed within 30 days, particularly in the health sector. Although response rates varied by institution, the IPC has engaged with those institutions that seem to be facing particular challenges to better understand any underlying systemic issues and work directly with some of them to help support improvements.
My office recently launched a new service for filing and paying for appeals online to enhance service delivery to Ontarians and modernize our process. No need for money orders or stamps; appeals under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA) can now be filed and paid for online conveniently and securely — in just a few clicks!
As we focus on Right to Know Week this year, I invite you to learn more about access rights by checking out our resources:
You can also hear from Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill in our podcast, From FOI to Front Page News, about how investigative journalists use FOI to shine a light on government decisions in the public interest.
For institutions, our webinar on records and information management (RIM) explains how well-organized records support compliance with Ontario’s access and privacy laws and reduce the time it takes to respond to FOI requests. Also, our recent guidance on Public Interest Disclosure sets out important factors for institutions to consider when determining if there is an overriding public interest to release information notwithstanding an applicable exemption.
This week, our colleagues from across Canada will share their perspectives on why access rights are important. I hope that you will join the conversation and help spread the word by sharing the IPC’s tweets and posts and following the #RTK2022 hashtag on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Also, stay tuned for an exciting announcement on September 28 (the International Day for Universal Access to Information) about a new initiative we’re launching that’s all about shining a light on transparency.
Looking forward to celebrating Right to Know Week 2022 with you all of you!
This post is also available in: French