Canada's information watchdog says the public knows less than ever about what its government is doing — a stark contrast to U.S. President's Barack Obama's push for openness in the United States.
Information Commissioner Robert Marleau said Thursday the grip on federal files is tightening, largely because of the Conservative government's "communications stranglehold" on the bureaucracy.
"There's less information being released by government than ever before. And that's alarming."
In Washington this week, Obama marked his first full day as president by serving notice to officials they must favour disclosure of records under the Freedom of Information Act over keeping them secret.
"The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," said his memo to the heads of departments and agencies.
Canada's Access to Information Act, which has changed little in a quarter of a century, is often criticized as poorly administered, antiquated and generally neglected by the government.
It means those who plunk down $5 to request information from federal agencies face delays of several months and frequently receive little of value. Marleau's office is so backlogged it can take a year or more for his staff to investigate complaints.
The Conservatives took office in early 2006 partly on the strength of promises of new accountability, including reforms to Canada's outdated Access to Information regime advocated by Marleau's predecessor.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made good on only a handful of changes, including opening the law to some additional agencies. The issue of access reform was handed to a Commons committee for more study.
A declaration of openness from Harper to match Obama's call for transparency would be significant, Marleau said.
"It sends a real signal. Whatever the prime minister has to articulate in terms of policy, the public servants listen carefully. It would be very important, it would have a dramatic impact, I believe," Marleau said.
"I certainly would welcome it."
Lawyer and frequent user of the access law Michel Drapeau agrees.
"I think it would have a huge effect, an absolutely huge effect," said Drapeau, a retired colonel and author of a reference book on the information law.
Bureaucrats would respond to a strong signal from above that things should be done differently, he said.
"They know when there is a wind of change in the place."
Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall said the government has fought for the right of Canadians to know how their government operates, noting that 70 new institutions — including the Wheat Board and CBC — are now covered by the law.
"This government remains committed to accountability and to transparency."
MacDougall said the Conservatives would implement "procedural recommendations" made by the information commissioner, though he could not say when or provide other details.
Marleau said he plans to present special report cards to Parliament on 10 federal agencies in February that show the information fog is thickening.
"The time extensions are longer and longer," he said. "There is an information management crisis in the public service of Canada."
Departments don't know what they have, nor where to find it. "Technology has overtaken them. If you don't know what you have, how can you access it?"
Marleau said the tone is set in the Prime Minister's Office.
"You hear it all around town that ministers aren't allowed to communicate," he said. "It trickles down the side of the mountain in various departments.
"If the message out there is that you cannot talk to the media, you cannot communicate with citizens without clearing it at the centre, then how do you feel as a public servant answering the telephone when either a member of the media or the public call you for information? It inevitably has to have a chill effect."