I also want to welcome our parliamentary secretary, Joyce Murray, and all of you committee members.
On June 2, it will be my 19th anniversary as a member of Parliament. At that point, I will have spent about two years in government and the rest in opposition. I've been on committees of Parliament for 17 of those years, and I tell you, it is from that perspective that I value the important work done by committees of Parliament. We intend on fortifying the roles of committees and of parliamentarians as we work on legislation and consult with Canadians. I thank you for the important work that you do on this committee.
I'm pleased to be here with Jennifer, our deputy chief information officer, to speak with you about access to information reform.
I would like to thank the members of the committee for their proactive approach to exploring the Access to Information Act and offering solutions to make it serve Canadians better.
This act is out of date. It hasn't been updated significantly since receiving royal assent, back in 1983. This is incredible given how much Canada has changed, particularly in terms of the changes to how information and data are produced, stored, and shared. All those areas have been revolutionized. Email, social networks, and smart phones rule the day, and we need to modernize ATI to reflect these realities.
We also must change the culture around government information. We need to move toward a culture of “open by default” when it comes to information. Our has recognized that for a long time. In opposition, he actually tabled a private member's bill, Bill , to help modernize the act. During the campaign, our platform made commitments in terms of modernizing the act. These were actually reflected in my mandate letter, which, as you're aware, has been made public, as have all the mandate letters of ministers.
In my mandate, the Prime Minister asked me to:
Work with the Minister of Justice to enhance the openness of government, including leading a review of the Access to Information Act to ensure that Canadians have easier access to their own personal information, that the Information Commissioner is empowered to order government information to be released and that the Act applies appropriately to the Prime Minister’s and Ministers’ Offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.
Now that we're in government, we're acting on these commitments to strengthen and revitalize access to information.
Later today, I am issuing an interim directive on the administration of the Access to Information Act. I'd like to begin by speaking to you today about some of the immediate changes we would like to implement and intend on making today. This directive is guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people it serves and should be open by default.
It guides institutions on how to administer the act in ways that are consistent with our commitments to more open government.
It emphasizes that government information belongs to the people.
The directive stresses that providing access to government information is paramount to serving the public interest. It enables public debate on the conduct of government institutions and strengthens the accountability of government to its citizens, and indeed, the role of citizens and of parliamentarians.
The interim directive also stipulates that, from today forward, all fees apart from the $5 application fee will be waived. When feasible, requesters will receive information in the format of their choice, including open, reusable, and shareable formats.
These concrete measures make early progress on our commitments.
This is just the beginning. We are also moving forward with a two-step legislative plan I announced recently. We split the legislative reform into two phases and issued a directive right away specifically so we could make improvements to the Access to Information Act immediately.
Next we will table legislation that will include the implementation of the rest of our platform commitments. We also will bring forward significant improvements identified through public consultations and through the work of this committee. These measures will shed more light than ever before on the government.
One, we will give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of government information. Two, we will ensure the act applies appropriately to the 's and ministers' offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts. Three, we will implement a mandatory five-year review starting in this mandate to ensure the act stays up to date and consistent with modern needs and technology. Four, we will improve response times by addressing the problem of frivolous and vexatious requests to ensure the purpose of the act is respected. Five, we will improve performance reporting. We want to make sure evidence guides our decision and we can measure results.
These are significant changes. Take, for example, expanding the application of the act to ministers' offices. For the first time, Canadians will have an expanded view into the decisions of government.
This is significant reform that will involve every department, every minister's office, the 's Office, the courts, the Information Commissioner's office, and this committee. We are engaging with Canadians in Parliament because we need to get this right as we work to develop the proposed legislation.
Your committee's input will be important to this process, and I particularly value the committee's advice on how to proceed on some of the government's commitments. I would like to address a few of those.
One, what is the best approach to enable the Information Commissioner to order the release of government records, and what are the implications for the commissioner's other responsibilities?
Two, what special considerations would need to be taken into account in extending access to information to the Prime Minister's Office, ministers' offices, and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts? How can those considerations be addressed?
Three, we've now eliminated all fees except the basic $5 administrative fee, but we need to filter vexatious and frivolous requests if we want to make the system timely and efficient. I would ask this committee, is the $5 fee the best way to do that, or is there a better way? I know there's been witness testimony on different approaches to this, and I'm looking forward to hearing your views and through your report informed by witnesses what some of your ideas are in terms of the best way forward on this.
Another question is, would the public interest be best served by allowing institutions and the Information Commissioner discretion to not process access to information requests or complaints that are frivolous or vexatious, and how would that be determined?
Another question is, how should we assess performance of the access to information program? Ongoing measurement of the performance of it is important so that we can understand how this is working from a results perspective.
These are important questions. Once we've completed our consultations, we intend to introduce legislation in late 2016 and early 2017. I stress the work of this committee is important as it will inform our crafting of this legislation.
The second step of updating the ATI legislation is to launch a full legislative review, which will begin immediately after the first phase of legislative changes and will be completed some time in 2018.
This mandatory five-year review will guarantee that no government in the future can allow the Access to Information Act to become as outdated and out of touch as it currently is. It will provide a more in-depth assessment of how we can continue to build on the changes we've introduced and whether those changes are meeting their objective of better serving Canadians.
Some have asked why are we waiting until 2018 for the full review. Very simply, we want to understand how the first round of legislative changes is working. We want to better understand those changes and how they're working before the whole legislative review, the first of reviews that occur every five years after that.
Colleagues, I want to reiterate these proposed reforms are just the beginning. We're committed to more open and transparent government. Our budget reinforced that commitment with specific investments, including doubling existing resources to open government initiatives, $11.5 million over five years for Treasury Board Secretariat's open government activities, and $12.5 million over five years to enhance Canada's access to government information, including Canadians' own personal information.
These are important investments in open government.
Open and transparent government is the way forward. If citizens understand why their government takes a particular course of action, if they have been engaged from the beginning, if they have access to the same information government has, they will have more confidence and trust in the outcomes.
The idea of engaging Canadians early, and providing them with more of the same information we as legislators and as members of government have as we make decisions, is simple—that we believe in the collective wisdom of Canadians. Engaging them early means that better decisions can result from more open engagement, and that those decisions will also co-emerge with more public support because the public has been engaged from the beginning, as has Parliament.
Canadians have waited a long time to have their access to information regime modernized to meet current needs. I look forward to working with this committee. Your input and advice on how we can make improvements to the system is of great value.
We look forward to answering your questions.
Thank you, Minister, Ms. Dawson, and Ms. Murray, for joining us here today and taking the time, and your staff as well, to come to committee.
You spoke in the beginning, Minister, about your fondness for committees and the work of committees, particularly when you were in opposition. I hope we can send you back there in about three and half years and that you can continue your opposition work on committees.
Voices: Oh! Oh!
Mr. Matt Jeneroux: However, that being said, I have a duty on my end, and I have about four and half minutes to ask you questions. I'll interrupt you, if that's all right. It doesn't mean I don't like you; it's just because I have to get a through a number of questions here.
That being said, the question that Mr. Lightbound referred to and you've touched on somewhat concerns the budget, at page 208. You mentioned “...informed by consultations with the Information Commissioner, stakeholders and...Parliamentarians....”
That was March 27. I wasn't consulted. Being a parliamentarian, I wasn't consulted, though perhaps the members on the other side of the table were consulted. We weren't. That leads me to think that this was a plan going ahead all along.
You then made comments on April 6, I believe, when you were speaking to the Canadian Open Dialogue Forum 2016, that you would be appearing before this committee in the process, because:
I believe the parliamentarians who were elected to speak for Canadians should have a say in this. ...
Once we're informed by our consultations and the committee's advice, we'll move forward to amend the Act.
We've seen, as just highlighted in the budget, that you're moving towards an order-making model without the advice of the committee, to date. Then, as shown in your comments—again not yet with the advice of the committee—you've now made some changes to the fees.
It's curious. You referenced your platform, which I happen to have in front of me. There's one sentence, and nowhere does it indicate that we're going to an order-making process. And you say there are no fees, not just a $5 fee.
Could you perhaps elaborate some of this advice that you've received from stakeholders and from parliamentarians to date?
Thank you very much for your question.
I know you have a lot of experience as a public servant. Your perspective is valuable for the committee and for our work.
As of tomorrow, we will be moving toward a more open model.
That model will be “open by default“.
This will require a change in culture in government. Policies have to be changed. This morning, I announced immediate changes to our policies. We have to listen to Canadians and work very closely with the committee. We will table a bill in late 2016 or early 2017 that will reflect these changes.
As we present those changes, starting off the changes will immediately help, but the first round of legislative changes that will make the Access to Information Act apply appropriately to ministers' offices and prime ministers' offices, that's a significant step. Increased powers for the Information Commissioner is a significant step.
Other changes that you identify as a committee, based on your work, can help inform that first round, but keep in mind that legislation will be back here in Parliament after it's introduced for legislative review, and you're going to have another go at it. There's an opportunity to do that work, but these are significant changes, and again, since 1983. This is a significant step forward.
This is not a partisan issue, by the way. One of the things that I always enjoyed about committees is that when they work well, they're inherently less partisan than what goes on in the chamber of the House of Commons.
Keep in mind there will be governments of different stripes in the future, and some of you in opposition now may be part of government in the future, and it's with that perspective that this is an issue that's too important for partisan division. This is something that is really important to get right for all of us.
I think this committee is a good place to conduct that evaluation.
Thanks again, Minister. Although I appreciate a lot of the storytelling and reminiscing around here, I'd like to get back to some of the task at hand. Hopefully you're not seeing it in a too partisan way, but if you were able to answer the questions a bit more directly, it would be appreciated.
As one final comment, with regard to your comments about moving too fast being our criticism of the process, I just want to be clear that it's not necessarily our criticism of the process; it's moving unilaterally, not necessarily too fast. I'm just clarifying the record there.
I want to get back to my previous question on the cabinet documents and then being open to the commissioners. You seemed to be open to the idea of certain ones, but when it came to public safety, I think you indicated a number of times that of course that would be kept confidential. However, there are certain things we've seen recently that aren't necessarily open and where it would be beneficial to certain commissioners to be able to access that.
I will use the example of the Minister of Justice. Her husband works for an organization that lobbies her department. Currently there is nothing the Ethics Commissioner can do, in terms of the cabinet documents, to ensure that's not being abided to....
I'm hoping that you're open to removing some of these types of ethical screens in the cabinet documents so that it's not just based on the public safety and privacy, which we're aware of, but also so that we can have more understanding, as can the Ethics Commissioner, that this is not affecting her job or compromising her department.
Joyce and I first met when she was a cabinet minister in B.C. and I was Minister of Public Works. We were dealing with issues of shared services between the federal and provincial government—that was back around 2005, I believe—and she brings with her that experience.
We need to renew our public service. We have a first-class public service. One thing is that the average age of new hires within the public service now is 37, which would seem ancient to Mr. Lightbound over there. Millennials represent the most digitally connected generation in the history of Canada, but also the most educated and informed, and we need to find ways to attract them. They want to know that they can make a difference, and the only way you can make a difference is if you can try new things. The problem is that if you try new things, some of those things won't work out, and if you create a culture of fear in the public service that if you try something that fails you're going to be in trouble, that cover-your-butt kind of culture is anathema to innovation.
We have to create a culture of intelligent risk-taking within the public service enabling some level of entrepreneurialism within it. Mr. Long has been an entrepreneur. I don't see any reason why the best instincts of entrepreneurs cannot be harnessed in government, in both politics and the public service. We want to do that.
That's why I've been totally transparent this morning, saying that as we do these things we will err sometimes and will try something that doesn't work, or we may find that something we hadn't thought about makes a lot of sense. We can hear from you and others. We really want to do that.
For young people who want to make a difference, public service still represents one of the best places to do it, in the government as a public servant, in politics—and in opposition as well as in government. Don't take for granted for one moment the opportunity, the privilege you have to make a difference, wherever you sit in the House of Commons. There is no bad seat in the House of Commons.