Canada urged to take leadership role on open government

Canada could play a strong leadership role in a budding global openness initiative, says the federal information czar.

OTTAWA — Canada could play a strong leadership role in a budding global openness initiative, says the federal information czar.

The Open Government Partnership, co-chaired by eight countries and several civil society organizations, seeks concrete commitments from countries to promote transparency and fight corruption.

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault took part in a recent Washington gathering of representatives of more than 60 countries — from Albania to Zambia — to lay groundwork for the project.

The fledgling international partnership flows from U.S. President Barack Obama’s effort to foster democratic principles by encouraging countries to adopt clear standards on openness.

In order to become a member, participating countries must declare a commitment to open government, deliver an action plan developed through public consultation, and agree to independent review of their progress.

An official launch is slated for September in tandem with the next meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. A followup session will be held in Brazil in March 2012.

“It’s exciting. There certainly seems to be a lot of high-level interest. The commitment is there, the goals are impressive,” said Legault, who addressed the event hosted last week by the U.S. State Department.

“The question is whether the Canadian government is going to join this initiative.”

Decades ago, Canada was among the first countries to embrace freedom of information laws that give citizens the right to request records held by their governments.

But the federal Access to Information Act has not truly been updated in almost 30 years. Critics have widely condemned it as too restrictive and cumbersome in an age when people expect information about what their leaders are up to at the click of a mouse.

Meanwhile, other countries have recently passed state-of-the-art information laws.

Canada has room to improve, but could still serve as an example for developing nations, Legault said in an interview.

“I think Canada could play a real leadership role in matters of transparency and open government,” she said. “We need to do some work, but I think we really have the makings of a true leader in this field. And so I would hope we would join if only for that.”

A Foreign Affairs official attended the Washington meeting, but it was unclear whether Canada would formally sign on to the initiative. The department had no comment Monday.

Legault said the global partnership makes sense in an era when many issues — such as fisheries and forest conservation — span borders.

“There is now, more than ever, an interest in having transparency around those issues. And so I think it’s also a recognition that these issues are becoming worldwide.”

Earlier this year the federal government unfurled an open data portal designed to give Canadians easy access to statistics on everything from meteorological patterns to visa applications. But the Conservatives have shown little appetite for updating the Access to Information law.

Still, Legault points to the June speech from the throne and its promises of “improved access to the workings of government through open data, open information and open dialogue.”

“I think there is a commitment to open government from this government now. We’ll have to see how it unfolds,” Legault said.

“My key concern is that we not forget the work that needs to be done on our Access to Information regime.”