The Access to Information Act (ATIA) or its provincial equivalent the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is necessary because experience has shown, worldwide, that governments will not respect the citizen’s ‘right to know’ without a legal requirement to do so. Why? Appointed and elected officials as well as public servants have strong incentives as well as personal interest to withhold information even when it would be in the public interest to disclose the information. In fact, in many such instances the personal (survival) interest of the individual is at odds with the public interest. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. For this reason most if not all of those who currently yield power at the various levels of government in our country would and do actually recoil from the accountability and transparency which the ATIA/FOIA brings.
Let me open by noting that the reach of the AITA/FOIA should be much much broader than it is actually the case. I see no reason with the Office of the Governor General, the administration of the various Courts, the House of Commons and the Senate as well as provincial legislature should not be subject to the ATIA/FOIA. In particular, I hold the strong belief, and have advocated in other fora, that our MPs and Senators at as well as MPPs should ALL be subject to the ATIA/FOIA. Ditto for officials at the municipal and school board level. There is a beneficial precedent for such an action.The UK Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 2000 includes the House of Commons and the House of Lords (equivalent to our Senate) among “core” public authorities subject to the Act. This legislative initiative served to reinforce their resolve to have the FOIA as an inescapable instrument for protecting political participation rights by the UK citizenry and their “right to know”. Not surprisingly, such a move has had a major cleansing effect forcing the resignation of many and bringing about a new era of frugality upon the expenses now being claimed by UK Members of Parliament. All in all a good thing.
Before proceeding further, I need to make one important caveat since one needs to keep in mind that the ATIA/FOIA are legal instruments to enforce the “right to know” of the citizenry. As a result, the administration of the ATIA/FOIA regime involves the creation and operation of a large bureaucracy and implies the disbursement of significant costs to ensure its efficient operation. It makes little sense to have to rely on such a legal process to request access to information which should because of its very nature and simplicity already and be put out voluntarily in the public domain as part of routine process of accountability by public officials. In other words, a public official should not have to wait until an ATIA/FOIA request is submitted before providing an accounting to the greater public of his use or misuse of public funds for personal or professional versus organizational purposes. The ATIA/FOI should be reserved more larger and more sophisticated issues demanding, for instance, a targeted and focused search of records.
In my opinion each one of our public institutions should be forced by legislation (perhaps imbedded directly into the ATIA/FOIA) to adopt broad and strong proactive disclosure policies fostering the right of access and thereby strengthening our democracy and the notion of open government. Can this be done? Of course it can and easily. Already scores of departments, administrative tribunals and agencies, and Crown corporations particularly at the federal level which are already subject to the ATIA/FOIA already complement their disclosure obligations under these statutes by publishing quarterly on their webpages details as travel and hospitality expenses incurred by their executives and elected officials, costs for attendance by these high-ranking persons at out-of-town conferences, details as to the sole-source contracts awarded, details on hiring of key staff etc. Such a procedure shifts the onus on the officials to render account of their spending to the greater public instead of allowing them to stay below radar until someone formally exercises his or her right of access.
Such voluntary and pro-active disclosure normally brings about a most welcome degree of self-discipline and frugality on the part of officials everywhere. For that reason alone, in a democracy, government should, as a habit of mind and a matter of government-wide policy, disclose as much information as possible pro-actively.
In conclusion, it is crucial to our democracy for all federal, provincial, municipal and educational institutions, including Parliament and provincial legislative assemblies, be both subject to the ATIA/FOA and adopt strong and wide proactive disclosure policies. Voters and tax payers should have the possibility to have uninhibited easy and regular access to all the information needed to make a knowledgeable choice on Election Day. Democratic government rests on a foundation of an informed citizenry. And that foundation demands regular, pro-active disclosure by each and every one of our elected officials whose actions would also be subject to the more rigorous and legal mechanisms provided under the FOIA/ATIA regime.