New Brunswick gets 'B' for openness in national access-to-information audit
Federal system gets failing grade, deemed less open under Trudeau government than under Harper
A group of media watchdogs has given the New Brunswick government a "B" grade for openness, based on a national audit of access to information systems.
News Media Canada filed identical information requests to various municipal, provincial and federal governments and assigned grades for degree of disclosure.
Of the 15 requests sent to the New Brunswick government, eight were released in full as requested, six were denied in part, and one generated a response of "no records."
"New Brunswick did overall OK," said Fred Vallance-Jones, an associate professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax who led the Freedom of Information audit.
A "B" grade represents from 75 to 87.5 per cent.
Vallance-Jones said one problem area identified by the audit was that the departments of Education and Early Childhood Development, Health, and Justice and Public Safety responded to requests for electronic spreadsheets of all of the right-to-information requests they've received in PDF format instead, blaming the program they use to process information requests.
"We asked for a machine-readable format," said Vallance-Jones. "So that's a barrier if you can't open an electronic file and it's something we've been pushing hard in the audit and commenting on wherever it happens."
2 cities get top grades
The two municipalities graded — Moncton and Fredericton— both received an "A."
Saint John was not graded for "technical reasons."
During the last audit in 2015, the City of Moncton had released some data on paper instead of in a machine-readable format.
But this year, all records were released electronically, in full and in a timely manner, the audit found.
In 2015 Fredericton had initially refused to reply to all but one information request because it realized they were likely part of the News Media Canada audit and were asking the province's information commissioner to deem the requests "frivolous and vexatious" so it wouldn't have to respond.
The commissioner refused, but by the time the city responded to several of the requests, the audit had ended.
"This time they responded to everything as requested and on time, so we saw significant improvement there," said Vallance-Jones.
'F' for feds
The federal government, on the other hand, received a failing grade of "F."
Canada's access-to-information system is worse under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau than during the latter years of the former Stephen Harper government, the audit found.
We can't really have an open democracy, a well-functioning democracy, if we don't really know what's going on in the government … That's why it matters.- Fred Vallance-Jones, audit leader
"It's probably the worst we've seen in the seven times we've done this since 2008," said Vallance-Jones, one of the country's leading authorities on Freedom of Information requests.
In its 2015 platform on open and transparent government, Trudeau's then-Opposition Liberal Party stated that "transparent government is good government."
But the system "seems as broken as ever," according to the audit, released on Wednesday.
Speed of responses a problem
Only 25 per cent of federal requests were responded to within the 30-day time limit. In New Brunswick, that figure was 87 per cent.
Vallance-Jones believes a combination of factors are at play at the federal level — a culture of resistance to full openness, a desire to vet requests multiple times to ensure they're not releasing anything they shouldn't, bureaucratic complexity and a lack of resources.
"Perhaps most importantly though, there hasn't been sort of a statement from the top that says, 'From now on, you're going to meet that 30-day requirement all the time.' There just doesn't seem to be a willingness to push the envelope."
Liberal bill would be a 'regression'
And the future doesn't look much brighter, according to a report to Parliament from the federal information watchdog the same day the audit was released.
Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault said the Liberal bill to revise the Access to Information Act "will not advance government transparency."
If passed, Bill C-58 "would result in a regression of existing rights," she said.
The federal access act, which took effect in 1983, allows citizens who pay $5 to request records ranging from correspondence and expense reports to meeting minutes and reports. Agencies must fulfill the requests within 30 days or provide reasons for why more time is needed.
The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled the right to access to information is a "quasi-Constitutional right," said Vallance-Jones.
"We can't really have an open democracy, a well-functioning democracy, if we don't really know what's going on in the government," he said.
"If all we get are the press releases and the media lines and the statements from ministers — if there isn't an opportunity to go behind that and see what's really going on behind the sort of the front of, 'Everything is great,' then our democracy suffers. That's why it matters."
How did your government do?
|Newfoundland and Labrador||A|
|North West Territories||A|
|Prince Edward Island||A|
With files from Information Morning Fredericton