A little-known treasure trove of government records will soon be available for online perusal, thanks to the pro-transparency efforts of a little-known parliamentary committee.

Senators and MPs sitting on the joint committee that advises the Library of Parliament have signed off on a motion that will liberate thousands of pages of previously non-publicly available information tabled in the House in response to written questions submitted via the Commons order paper.

As noted in the motion, which was put forward by Liberal MP Scott Simms, the library already makes scanned copies of those responses available on an internal parliamentary system.

Under the new policy, Canadians will have "unfettered access" to those same documents, which often offer a rare glimpse behind the bureaucratic curtain.

Initially, Simms had proposed an open-ended timeline that would cover "all existing and future scanned sessional papers."

That prompted objections from Conservative MP Brad Butt, who worried that such a sweeping order could come at an "enormous expense."

Online archive

"I understand what Mr. Simms is trying to do, and on a 'go forward' basis, I completely get that and I'm supportive of that," Butt told his committee colleagues.

"But the wording of the motion isn't tight enough for me to know that we're not getting into tens and hundreds of millions of dollars of expense to do this thing."

The committee eventually decided to amend the motion to cover previously tabled responses going back to November 2008, or the start of the 40th Parliament.

"I can live with that," Butt told his colleagues.

They also agreed not to put a hard deadline on the project, and will instead leave those logistics to the library itself, which is already working on an ambitious digitization project of its own.

The new rule won't cover the Senate, as the library isn't currently in the loop to get copies of responses tabled in the Upper Chamber.

Simms, however, will make the case to address that data deficit at a future meeting, when he intends to put forward a motion that would include Senate responses as well.

It would also call on the government to give the library digital copies of all future written responses, as well as past replies where the original files are still available.

MPs often unsatisfied by answers

In recent months, the government has been obliged to respond to queries on everything from payouts to departing political staffers to the cost of the search process that resulted in the now mooted nomination of Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court of Canada. 

Unlike Access to Information requests, written questions must be answered within 45 days, which can make it a more efficient means of extracting information.

The government's responses are also not subject to ATI exemptions, although that hasn't stopped the Conservatives from declining to provide requested data on privacy grounds — or, in what appears to be an increasingly common practice, simply because it would allegedly be too much work to collect the data.

Library of Parliament  20100928

A statue of Queen Victoria stands in the Library of Parliament in Ottawa, which has undertaken an ambitious digitization project. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

MPs left unsatisfied by a particular response have no formal avenue of appeal beyond the Speaker, who, much like his policy on policing answers given during question period, has made it clear that he is similarly unwilling to weigh in on the quality of written replies.

Even so, the Liberals have been particularly enthusiastic when it comes to filling up their allotted space on the order paper, which allows an MP to have a maximum of four questions on the list at any given time.

Caucus stats-crunchers point out that, at the beginning of May, the party had 121 pending queries, which works out to 86 per cent of the available slots.

The New Democrats, in contrast, had just 39 outstanding questions, or just over 10 per cent of their quota.

Meanwhile, the only Conservative MP currently awaiting a written answer is Burlington backbencher Mike Wallace, who wants to know how much it cost to respond to the previous 253 questions. 

In any case, it's hard not to hope that the prospect of full public access may galvanize the government to put a little more effort into preparing its replies.

If it doesn't, at least the people picking up the tab will be able to judge for themselves whether they're getting their money's worth.