(Mis)Information, (Mis)Management, & the Conservative Party, Vol. I

Parliament Building, Ottawa, ON

Peter Parycek and Michael Sachs understand the importance of information to a government and to the people that government serves. “People who grow up in an information society,” they state in this ePractice Open Government article, “are willing to participate in democracies, but they cannot prosper in systems based on constraint”. A strong society based on accessible and authoritative information creates a better informed society; this society is one that is not only better able to participate in a national conversation, but one that is more interested in such a conversation. The Government of Canada has made movements towards such a society, receiving high marks from the Open Government Partnership. The Partnership’s Steering Committee is made up of numerous government and civil officials from around the world. Of course, it’s all relative, with 23% of the countries involved in the Open Government Partnership not even submitting an action plan (as per Alex Howard’s Open Government blog). Earlier this year Canada’s President of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, requested that Howard provide suggestions regarding a more open Canadian government. You can read Howard’s blog post about the meeting and his recommendations to Clement here.

There are a number of independent information-related officers within the Canadian Government. These individuals and their respective staff safeguard Canadian citizens’ privacy, in addition to holding the Government accountable for their use of information as well as the information they made available to the Canadian public.

Canada’s Auditor General Michael Ferguson

Auditor General – Michael Ferguson

Reporting to Parliament, the Office of the Auditor General audits federal initiatives and operations, ensuring that public funds are spent responsibly. The Auditor General may make suggestions regarding future implementation of policies, although the Office has no role in the actual creation of these policies or the value of said policies. In concordance with the Auditor General Act, particularly the section entitled Sustainable Development, which states that “the purpose of the Commissioner is to provide sustainable development monitoring and reporting on the progress of category I departments towards sustainable development, which is a continually evolving concept based on the integration of social, economic and environmental concerns” (21(1)), the Auditor General’s Office includes the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, an office held by Scott Vaughan.

Find reports and publications produced by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada here.

Information Commissioner of Canada –  Suzanne Legault

Under the 1983 Access to Information Act, when a Canadian citizen makes a request for federal information the Government must “make every reasonable effort to assist the person in connection with the request, respond to the request accurately and completely and, subject to the regulations, provide timely access to the record in the format requested” (4(2.1)). Created in light of the Access to Information Act, the Office of the Information Commissioner investigates complaints regarding alleged withholding of information by federal institutions. While the Commissioner and her Office make every attempt to resolve disputes through mediation, the Commissioner may also refer cases to the Federal Court. The Information Commissioner of Canada also advocates for greater freedom of information through enterprises such as “Right to Know Week”.

Find reports and publications produced by the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada here.

Privacy Commissioner of Canada –  Jennifer Stoddart

Reporting to the House of Commons and the Senate, the Privacy Commissioner’s Office has multiple responsibilities, including investigating Canadian citizens’ complaints that their privacy has been breached. While these complaints may be launched against government offices or personnel, the Privacy Commissioner’s Office may investigate private corporations, such as Jennifer Stoddart’s investigation of complaints against Facebook’s privacy practices. The Office also promotes Canadians’ understanding of their privacy rights. In 2004 the Office established the External Advisory Committee, which is made up of private citizens who provide consultation to the Office on public policy.

Find reports and publications produced by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada here.

Assistant Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier & Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

In the 2012 CSIS report Informing (In)Stability – The Security Implications of a Shifting News and Media Environment, conference participants noted the monumental change in government-society relations caused by constantly changing media technologies and society’s increasing media and information literacy. To quote directly from the report: “New information technologies are radically changing the ways we interact, communicate, understand, and act on all scales. State institutions, like all hierarchical 20th-century organisations, are fundamentally threatened by this flattening. Corporations, international organisations, media companies, and government agencies were built for a world where power was achieved through the control of information”. This shift in power, from government cornering the market on information to a more egalitarian conception of information sharing, necessitates not only the tenacity of member of society, but the goodwill of governments to create policies that will make information preservation and distribution a reality. Since the Conservative Party of Canada took office in 2006, making Stephen Harper Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister, it has become apparent that their willingness to create such an atmosphere is ill-defined, at best. Below are decisions made by the Conservative Party that have put the preservation or sharing of crucial information in jeopardy.

Scrapping the long-form census

Hans Kleefeld’s 1971 stamp celebrating the centennial of the Canadian census.

In 2010 the federal government abandoned the long-form census, getting rid of questions that former Industry Minister Tony Clement claimed were too intrusive. Instead of the long-form census, a short-form census would be mandatory, while an optional long-form census would be made available. While this action was lauded by some members of the Canadian public, as Globe and Mail reporter Jennifer Ditchburn reported, by and large the decision sparked outrage amongst public policy-makers and statisticians within Statistics Canada itself. Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote an open letter addressed to Tony Clement and Statistic Canada’s Chief Statistician, Munir Sheikh. In the letter, Yalnizyan expressed deep concern regarding the decision to get rid of the long-form census. Noting that Statistics Canada was unlikely to receive information of comparable quality to that of the mandatory long-form census, Yalnizyan  stated that “without robust Census data, it is difficult for local governments, health districts and other community service providers to respond effectively to shifting patterns of need or introduce changes – including cuts – that do the least harm or provide the greatest value for money”. Yalnizyan also noted that federal information had already taken a beating, with the 2009 discontinuation of the Workplace and Employee Survey, “the only source of annual information on job vacancies, benefits and private pensions”.

Munir Sheikh himself and former Statistics Canada chief statistician Ivan Fellegi warned against the cancellation of the long-form census to the Commons industry committee. Munir Sheikh eventually resigned from his position over the debacle. In a media advisory (which was later removed from the Statistics Canada web site), Sheikh said that “I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census. It can not”. This year census data revealed that “12 per cent of communities had response rates that fall below the optimal 50 per cent level,” leading Fellegi to state that the reliability of census data from smaller Canadian communities was questionable. In 2010, journalist David McKie pointed out that access-to-information requests regarding the decision to scrap the long-form census were summarily denied, and that ultimately “we may be unwittingly forced to do something that is counterintuitive: trust that the Conservatives really are doing the right thing”. Despite the huge change in the Canadian census in 2010, no update has been made to History of the Census of Canada on Statistics Canada’s web site.

Privacy breaches of veterans and veterans advocates

Since March 2012, the Veterans Affairs Canada has stated that “to provide service to Veterans, employees of Veterans Affairs Canada must share client information internally,” yet the office “takes its responsibility to protect the privacy and rights of all Veterans very seriously”. For the past few years the Privacy Commissioner’s Office received numerous complaints from veterans and veterans advocates who claimed that their personal information, including medical records, had been inappropriately accessed and shared within federal offices. Gulf War veteran Sean Bruyea, a strong advocate for Veterans’ rights, was the target of such privacy breaches, which included information about Mr. Bruyea’s mental-health condition. In 2006 Bruyea’s medical and financial information was provided to the former Veterans Affairs Minister in a briefing note, an infringement of Bruyea’s rights. Records proved that multiple ministers, Conservative as well as Liberal, had also accessed Bruyea’s medical records.

Veteran and veterans’ advocate Sean Bruyea

In the Privacy’s Commissioner’s 2010-2011 Annual Report to Parliament, Report on the Privacy Act, Jennifer Stoddart stated that the privacy breaches were numerous and serious. Stoddart’s findings prompted the Privacy Commissioner’s Office to launch a full audit of Veterans Affairs’ conformity with Canada’s privacy laws. The Veterans Affairs Canada: Audit Report of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Section 37 of the Privacy Act, was published in 2012. The report notes the Veterans Affairs Office’s willingness to comply with any suggestions made by the Privacy Commissioner’s Office, although there were changes to be made, including the sort of information collected from veterans and the strengthening of veterans’ consent for their information to be accessed or transferred. In section 29 of the report, the Privacy Commissioner stated that “in response to our 2010 investigation, Veterans Affairs Canada acknowledged that the inclusion of excessive personal information in ministerial briefing material was an issue. as part of its ten-point Privacy action Plan to address this and other issues, the Department established new procedures for preparing briefing notes and other documents for internal use. These procedures (guidelines) were implemented in October 2010”.

In one of the very few Veterans Affairs media advisories addressing the issue, former Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn stated on November 18, 2010 that “I am pleased to confirm this mediation [between Veterans Affairs Canada and Sean Bruyea] has resulted in a settlement satisfactory to all sides involved”. Yet in 2012 a whole new crop of privacy concerns were raised. While the Privacy Commissioner’s audit was still being collated, Amprax Inc., an outside contractor hired by Veterans Affairs to investigate the privacy breach,  found that bureaucrats were not at fault for accessing and using Sean Bruyea’s personal information. As of last May, Stoddart was also investigating Amprax’s investigation. In 2011 Harold LeDuc, another veteran and veterans’ advocate, found himself the target of a political smear campaign, which included the retrieval and release of his own private medical information. Dennis Manuge, another veteran who had been involved in litigation against the federal government regarding veterans’ pensions, found that his personal information had been accessed more than 1,000 times. In August 2012 Bruyea called the reprimands given to bureaucrats that violated his privacy a “slap on the wrist”. Despite the failings on the part of the Veterans Affairs’ senior managers to prevent such privacy breaches, they received almost $700,000 in bonuses in 2011.

Stay tuned for the next installment of (Mis)Information, (Mis)Management, & the Conservative Party. There’s no lack of fodder.

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