Province trails in openness audit

Rob Antle
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Government earns C+ grade

A national audit of freedom of information laws puts Newfoundland and Labrador in the bottom half of national openness and transparency rankings.

The Canadian Newspaper Association (CNA) audit - undertaken in conjunction with the University of King's College in Halifax - gave the province a grade of C+.

A national audit of freedom of information laws puts Newfoundland and Labrador in the bottom half of national openness and transparency rankings.

The Canadian Newspaper Association (CNA) audit - undertaken in conjunction with the University of King's College in Halifax - gave the province a grade of C+.

Newfoundland and Labrador ranked ahead of only Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario among the 11 provincial and territorial governments surveyed.

A 2005 CNA audit, using different methodology, put Newfoundland and Labrador at third-best in the country.

That year, individual newspapers - such as The Telegram - were involved in the data gathering process.

This time around, the research was conducted exclusively by the King's journalism school.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government declined comment on the audit's findings.

"At this time, without having the opportunity to review the report in its entirety, it would be premature to respond to the findings," Ken Morrissey, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said in an e-mailed statement Friday.

Justice is the lead department for access-to-information laws in the province.

The Canadian Newspaper Association said the annual audit is an important initiative.

"The public's right to know has been recognized as a 'quasi constitutional right' by the Supreme Court of Canada," said David Gollob, the CNA's senior vice-president of policy and communications.

"But across Canada, respect for this right by government is wildly inconsistent. Your rights as a Canadian should be the same wherever you are. We are performing this audit because there's a vacuum - no one else is looking at the right to know and saying: it's got to be upheld as strongly in Windsor as in Saskatoon."

Among the findings of the audit, specific to the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government:

the Department of Transportation and Works would only provide the audit team with a printout of highway contract work, not a computer file. Government officials contended the information "does not exist in electronic form within this department" - even though the record released was a computer printout that included a "print date." The law allows public access to paper and electronic files.

the Newfoundland and Labrador government declined to release briefing notes on carbon taxes, citing sections of the act that permit the exemption of advice to ministers and information harmful to intergovernmental relations. Those exemptions are discretionary, meaning the government could release the information if it wished to do so.

Fred Vallance-Jones, the University of King's College journalism professor who oversaw the project, said the results were "a real mixed bag" for the province.

"The answer on the carbon tax did not display a huge willingness to be open, disclosing absolutely nothing," Vallance-Jones said.

"This is an issue that is huge across Canada. ... For a province to say that, yes, we have some records, in terms of briefing notes for our minister on this issue, but sorry, we're not willing to share any of that with the public, suggests an appalling lack of openness on an important issue."

Vallance-Jones also found it "puzzling" that the government said it could not provide computer files of highways contracts.

"I think governments have to realize this is the 21st century," Vallance-Jones said. "Computers are not only a way of collecting information, but also a way for the public to understand information.

"If governments are unwilling to release information in electronic form to journalists, then the public is being denied a layer of understanding of how government is spending money, and how government is running its programs. It really is unacceptable in this era."

The Williams government came to power on a promise of unprecedented openness, transparency and accountability.

"A comprehensive and effective freedom of information act is the best safeguard against the tendency of governments to descend into official secrecy and elitism," the 2003 Tory blueprint of campaign promises said.

In the past year, however, the province has moved to exempt more and more information from public access.

Legislation passed in 2008 exempted Nalcor, the government-owned energy corporation, from public tendering laws, and broadened the class of "commercially sensitive" records that can be withheld from freedom of information requests.

Bill 63, which passed in December, created a special, wide-ranging class of cabinet records under laws governing the management of provincial information. Cabinet records are exempt from public disclosure.

Last summer, the Cameron inquiry heard that the premier's office intervened in a Telegram access-to-information request sent to the Department of Health for briefing notes about botched cancer testing. The premier's office ordered that certain documents be withheld, overruling Health officials, who argued for their public release.

And last month, The Telegram revealed a pattern of involvement by bureaucrats serving the premier in managing freedom of information requests in other departments and public agencies - even though the premier's office has no actual legislative authority to do so.

rantle@thetelegram.com

Weblink

The full audit should be available today on the Canadian Newspaper Association website: http://www.cna-acj.ca/

Organizations: University of King's College, CNA, The Telegram Department of Justice Supreme Court of Canada Department of Transportation and Works Department of Health

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, British Columbia Ontario Canada Windsor Saskatoon

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Comments

Comments

Recent comments

  • Peter
    July 02, 2010 - 13:31

    The provincial governments continued withholding of information does not come without a price tag. The real cost to the citizens of this province can be measured in dollars and lost productivity. I have been attempting to access information from the College of the North Atlantic (CNA) related to my wrongful dismissal from the College in 2003. While the legislation indicates that the first and desired approach is for the applicant to simply request the information from the public body and not involve the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner Office (OIPC) I have found it to be extremely rare that CNA will fully disclose the requested information unless the request goes through a review by the OIPC.
    In my case, according to the annual budget of the OIPC and the case load of the OIPC (figures supplied by the OIPC) the actual cost to the province for my requests alone is in access of $160,000. That cost is for the years 2005-2007 and does not include any of 2008, a year in which several more requests were made. Further the $160,000 figure does not include any cost incurred by CNA which I would estimate to be quite substantial. This cost is also paid by the taxpayers.
    To put this in perspective, the OIPC only becomes engaged in a request when the applicant is not satisfied that the public body, in my case CNA, has not supplied all of the requested information. At that point the OIPC attempts to resolve the situation and may, in many cases conduct a formal review. In 100% of the requests which I have made to CNA where emails were involved (the most common communication form being requested) I have had additional documents released by involving the OIPC. Stated another way, until the OIPC becomes involved CNA does not release all of the requested information.
    I would rather just put in a single request for information, and receive the information. But in dealing with the College it has been my experience that it is a shell game and they will continually mislead and attempt to withhold information. In some cases CNA does not even supply the requested documents to the OIPC for their review, which is required under legislation.
    As non-compliant as CNA is with the current access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA) prior to that legislation coming into effect in 2005, CNA did not release any emails at all. Under the previous legislation, I requested from CNA a group of emails having to do with my time at CNA; there were less than four emails released. Under the ATIPPA, with many requests and an ongoing struggle, the number of emails released is in the thousands. All of these emails existed in 2004 and should have been released but without the force of legislation, CNA was holding on tight to the publics information. And the cost continues to climb.

  • Ken
    July 02, 2010 - 13:31

    Spot on Capitalist ... I was actually at Memorial stadium when he rolled in with the music booming and the crowds cheering. At last someone who knows how to run a province. Boy was I taken in... This is a six person team with everything being run out of the Premier's office.. As they say you can fool some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time.

  • Frank
    July 02, 2010 - 13:29

    Do as I say, not as I do.

  • UncivilServant
    July 02, 2010 - 13:27

    Regardless of the legislation, gov't will always find ways to hide information that would be embarassing. At the same time many FOI request are fishing expeditions that sometimes involve hundreds of employees. On top of that there is no standard method of filing information on computers. Each employee has his own system of storing informaton. Once they move on then the new employee often has difficulty sorting through the files. Perhaps the system needs to be standarized across government to improve the response time and the accuracy of the response.

  • Graham
    July 02, 2010 - 13:27

    Its difficult to get open honest anything from a dictator like Danny Williams. Why should we even expect it from him?

  • Capitalist
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    Back when Danny campaigned to become Premier I was excited because I thought here is a businessman promising openness and transparency. Then I saw a somewhat bitter man demonstrating the tendancies of a dictator. Instead of pro business he demonized business and instead of openness he clamped up and vilified anyone who criticzed him.

  • Jim
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    That's how Facism works.

  • vipor
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    what ever king danny says goes he is the boss and don,t forget it minnows

  • Peter
    July 01, 2010 - 20:20

    The provincial governments continued withholding of information does not come without a price tag. The real cost to the citizens of this province can be measured in dollars and lost productivity. I have been attempting to access information from the College of the North Atlantic (CNA) related to my wrongful dismissal from the College in 2003. While the legislation indicates that the first and desired approach is for the applicant to simply request the information from the public body and not involve the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner Office (OIPC) I have found it to be extremely rare that CNA will fully disclose the requested information unless the request goes through a review by the OIPC.
    In my case, according to the annual budget of the OIPC and the case load of the OIPC (figures supplied by the OIPC) the actual cost to the province for my requests alone is in access of $160,000. That cost is for the years 2005-2007 and does not include any of 2008, a year in which several more requests were made. Further the $160,000 figure does not include any cost incurred by CNA which I would estimate to be quite substantial. This cost is also paid by the taxpayers.
    To put this in perspective, the OIPC only becomes engaged in a request when the applicant is not satisfied that the public body, in my case CNA, has not supplied all of the requested information. At that point the OIPC attempts to resolve the situation and may, in many cases conduct a formal review. In 100% of the requests which I have made to CNA where emails were involved (the most common communication form being requested) I have had additional documents released by involving the OIPC. Stated another way, until the OIPC becomes involved CNA does not release all of the requested information.
    I would rather just put in a single request for information, and receive the information. But in dealing with the College it has been my experience that it is a shell game and they will continually mislead and attempt to withhold information. In some cases CNA does not even supply the requested documents to the OIPC for their review, which is required under legislation.
    As non-compliant as CNA is with the current access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA) prior to that legislation coming into effect in 2005, CNA did not release any emails at all. Under the previous legislation, I requested from CNA a group of emails having to do with my time at CNA; there were less than four emails released. Under the ATIPPA, with many requests and an ongoing struggle, the number of emails released is in the thousands. All of these emails existed in 2004 and should have been released but without the force of legislation, CNA was holding on tight to the publics information. And the cost continues to climb.

  • Ken
    July 01, 2010 - 20:20

    Spot on Capitalist ... I was actually at Memorial stadium when he rolled in with the music booming and the crowds cheering. At last someone who knows how to run a province. Boy was I taken in... This is a six person team with everything being run out of the Premier's office.. As they say you can fool some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time.

  • Frank
    July 01, 2010 - 20:17

    Do as I say, not as I do.

  • UncivilServant
    July 01, 2010 - 20:15

    Regardless of the legislation, gov't will always find ways to hide information that would be embarassing. At the same time many FOI request are fishing expeditions that sometimes involve hundreds of employees. On top of that there is no standard method of filing information on computers. Each employee has his own system of storing informaton. Once they move on then the new employee often has difficulty sorting through the files. Perhaps the system needs to be standarized across government to improve the response time and the accuracy of the response.

  • Graham
    July 01, 2010 - 20:14

    Its difficult to get open honest anything from a dictator like Danny Williams. Why should we even expect it from him?

  • Capitalist
    July 01, 2010 - 20:02

    Back when Danny campaigned to become Premier I was excited because I thought here is a businessman promising openness and transparency. Then I saw a somewhat bitter man demonstrating the tendancies of a dictator. Instead of pro business he demonized business and instead of openness he clamped up and vilified anyone who criticzed him.

  • Jim
    July 01, 2010 - 19:53

    That's how Facism works.

  • vipor
    July 01, 2010 - 19:47

    what ever king danny says goes he is the boss and don,t forget it minnows