Twice is coincidence—thrice, a trend!1 This post continues a list of ~36 reasons to not vote Conservative in the 2011 Canadian federal election.

In a footnote to yesterday's item on Abousfian Abdelrazik, I lamented that we might never know who was behind denying him diplomatic aid. The failure of Lawrence Cannon to reverse that action was bad enough in itself, but it's still natural to want to assign blame for the initial decision. However, it's unlikely that information could be obtained on who made the call; in its absence there is frustrating "plausible deniability" for Minister Cannon or whomever we suspect was at fault.

Consider two ideas about governments. One: they are secretive, jealous, and the civil service always covers its tracks in ways which are at odds with the public interest, including limiting public knowledge of their mistakes. Politicians use the same cloak of darkness to cover all kinds of dastardly deeds. Two: government should be completely open, and the public must be able to, at will, walk in and peruse any work being done on our behalf. Our servants ought to quickly and fully comply with our requests for this information.

Obviously these are both caricatures. Compared to private business, government is subject to much more varied and more intense scrutiny. We might guess that, given a government and large business with the same number of employees, less is known by outsiders about major and minor mistakes made by the corporation. Considering what each is required by law to disclose reinforces this point. Government is not, in short, a particularly good secrecy machine, and we know quite a lot about what it does.

On the second point, complete transparency is not desirable. We are concerned when a website has its database raided for hundreds of thousands of credit card records, or a government loses a large number of medical records, because we consider such information private, and we share it only on the expectation that others will guard it. Government, inasmuch as its activities touch all citizens at some point in their lives, needs to be good at protecting the private information it collects about them.2 There are several other good reasons for secrecy; for example, premature disclosure of regulatory decisions might be confer unfair market advantage; or enemies who obtain military plans could lay deadly ambushes.

Where am I going with this? The point is that there is a balance to be struck between openness and necessary confidentiality,3 one that can't be painted in broad strokes but must be instead carefully considered and decided in each new situation. Most crucially, rather than a laissez-faire approach,4 we establish officers like the Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner who have somewhat conflicting purposes. Their role, much like the defence and prosecution in criminal law, is to articulate detailed arguments for and against secrecy (or disclosure), so that informed decisions can be made.

When this adversarial approach yields a decision rule or guideline that is useful in a well-defined set of situations, we enshrine it as best practice and create procedures or systems based on it. These avoid endless rehashing of the same debates, and bring me to the substance of today's item. The Coordination of Access to Information Requests System was one such embodiment—until the Conservative government shut it down. Originally created to allow government departments to act in concert on related AIRs,5 it was also ripe for allowing the public to view that information online. Because the chief obstacles in filing AIRs—the small fee, the paperwork, and the delay while the information is assembled—were bureaucratic, and not often privacy-related, CAIRS offered a rare opportunity to greatly increase transparency with little downside risk.

Why was the order given to stop using it? Did it have some faults we might have fixed while preserving its benefits? In what will become a recurring theme, no reason was given besides a vague, untraceable reference to expert advice and aspersions cast on 'centralization' in general. As a result we are behind the United States on this matter; and the few agencies that are taking CAIRS-like action duplicate effort and expense by doing so in parallel. I have confidence that we will eventually catch up; but for setting us back at least a decade in this area, the Conservative party deserves a reprimand at the ballot box.

Tomorrow: "Canada's New Government," or, what's in a name?

  1. It is past midnight on the east coast, but not the west, so I'll claim I hit my Wednesday target. 

  2. Even non-private information, if the data set is large enough, can be abused by unscrupulous people. Navigating around such problems earned Statistics Canada an international reputation—more on that later. 

  3. Be wary of anyone who makes an unequivocal case for either one. 

  4. For example, accepting at face value an unsubstantiated claim that some information would "harm national security." 

  5. If you're not familiar with the general concept or Canada's implementation of access to information legislation, I encourage you to educate yourself about it. It is an essential feature of the world's strongest democracies. 


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