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RTKW 2023: Why access to information matters more than ever!

Files of paper with focus on file labelled classified.

For a topic that doesn’t often get as much media attention as its privacy counterpart, access to information has been making a lot more headlines this year. Many are urging the government to improve access to information legislation, and some are even taking it a step further — calling for a complete overhaul of the freedom of information (FOI) system.

Recently, the Globe and Mail ran a series, Secret Canada, highlighting many of the barriers to access to information and the many challenges facing FOI offices in ministries and departments across the country. Commendably, the Globe also developed a database of hundreds of thousands of FOI request summaries filed in Canada, as well as a detailed guide on how to file requests and navigate the system.

The Secret Canada series honed in on the critically important reasons why access to information and government transparency matter and why we need to fiercely protect and uphold access rights as a central tenet of our democracy. As part of the series, the reporters interviewed former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin. In her words:

“… a democracy just can't work without the people having information. That is key to making decisions around how you vote. It's key to making informed decisions. We're in this age of social media where people are substituting opinions for facts. Facts are absolutely basic to good democratic governance and accountability.”

Her quote captures the very essence of why, in our modern digital world, having timely access to accurate facts is critical. Providing information from reliable sources is an effective antidote to all of the misinformation out there — and even disinformation — especially in the age of generative artificial intelligence, when it is becoming so much more difficult to distinguish legitimate sources of information from fabricated stories or lies.

My office has long been advocating for updates to Ontario’s access to information legislation, and as I mentioned in my recent appearance on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, the FOI system can certainly use some legislative improvements. That said,  there is so much that governments can do non-legislatively as well. For example, institutions can greatly advance public transparency and trust by:

  • allocating additional resources to support over-strained FOI offices;
  • streamlining processes and gaining greater efficiencies by leveraging new automation tools and technology;
  • proactively disclosing more meaningful information Ontarians care about, without waiting to be asked, and;
  • strengthening a culture – and courage -- of openness among Ontario’s institutions where transparency is normalized and disclosure of information becomes the default.

But as a modern and effective regulator, the IPC has to do its part too. We need to renew our own commitment to the cause and speak in a united voice with our counterparts across the country and internationally, which you’ll be hearing more about during RTKW and in the weeks to follow.

As an office, we also need to streamline our appeals processes, facilitate the participation of the parties before our Tribunal, and render more timely access decisions.  To this end, we’ve made it easier for people to file and pay for access appeals using our convenient and secure online service. As we head into RTKW 2023, you’ll also learn more about the amendments we’ve made to our Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA) Code of Procedure to reflect updates to our tribunal processes and procedures and enhance our capacity to provide timely resolution to access appeals. And you’ll hear about the work we’ve undertaken to codify our past decisions into practical and actionable Interpretation Bulletins to help FOI coordinators on the ground when they receive an access to information request.

As a modern and effective regulator, our role is not only to call out non-compliant behaviour when we see it but to promote and encourage good transparency practices, too. Over the past year, we curated some great examples of how several Ontario institutions have succeeded in releasing data to the public in a way that is meaningful, readily accessible, and free of charge. We displayed these in a Transparency Showcase, a virtual exhibit of open government and open data initiatives. In case you missed it, take time during RTKW 2023 to visit the showcase and have a look around for some ideas and inspiration on how your institution can become more transparent, too!

You may also want to carve out some time to listen to a new Info Matters podcast being released as part of RTKW 2023.  In this episode, my guest Laura Neuman of the Carter Center, talks about how access to information — or rather, the lack thereof, can greatly exacerbate the inequities of a significant gender divide that continues to afflict women’s rights not only in developing countries, but developed countries alike. Laura also describes the Centre’s Inform Women, Transform Lives campaign that aims to empower women, helping them access essential information from their local governments to receive benefits or services, help support their families, and engage in civic life.

In fact, while you’re at it, you might want to make yourself a whole FOI playlist in celebration of Right to Know Week. You’ll definitely want to add this recent episode to your line-up, Trust and Truth: Navigating the Age of Misinformation, where I speak with Dr. Alex Himelfarb, chair of the Council of Canadian Academies’ Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation, about how important it is for governments to provide legitimate sources of information that otherwise get too readily filled with so-called facts and theories that aren’t true and can in fact be harmful. Misinformation and disinformation not only adversely affect individuals but can destroy social cohesion in communities, with disproportionately negative impacts on marginalized groups and vulnerable populations.

And you might wish to round out your FOI playlist with this earlier Info Matters episode featuring best-selling author and community activist Dave Meslin in Power to the People! Access, privacy and civic engagement. When it comes to open data and access to information, Dave says transparency is everything. Access to information is one of those fundamental building blocks in this great arena we call democracy where every citizen should have an active voice and a role to play in bringing about societal change for the better, starting with their own school or neighborhood.

As we head into Right to Know Week, I encourage you to reflect on the importance of access to information and how it contributes to the well-being of our communities and to the health of our democracy.

My office has some interesting things planned to put the spotlight on access and transparency throughout #RTK2023. Follow the hashtag and our Instagram, LinkedIn, and X (formerly Twitter) accounts for the latest access initiatives from across Canada and around the world.

It’s going to be a great week, and I encourage you to join in the celebration of information rights! Access to information matters. It underpins the very foundations of our democracy and our fundamental freedoms. Let’s not take it for granted.

— Patricia

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