We Spoke to Tony Clement About Making the Harper Government More Transparent

Tony Clement is "quite willing to take credit" for improvements in Canada's Access to Information system.

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Dec 16 2014, 5:23pm

President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement. Photo via ​World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons.

​Tony Clement is feeling pretty good.

The President of the Treasury Board is the Harper Government's go-to guy for tightening federal spending, defending the woefully broken Access to Information (ATI) system, and manning the floodgates of government data.

Clement spoke to VICE this week about his plans to revamp Canada's creaking system of transparency. And he seems to think things are going pretty well.

This, despite the Canadian ATI regime's failing grade in its last independent audit—​it got an F​—and the fact that its overseer says she's only got $3​7,000 left in the bank to fix up the program.

Under the ATI program, Canadians can request just about any information from government departments. VICE has used it to prove that the government has a pr​oblem with tapping Canadians' phones and not telling anyonepolice forbid you​r cell phone company from telling you that you're being spied on, and the f​ederal government is freaked out about giving trans people rights.

On one hand, the numbers from the system have gotten better in the last few years—the government is releasing more r​ecords, more quickly, than it ever has.

On the other, anyone who's ever used the system can tell you that it's a blazing dumpster-fire of black-bar redactions, delays, and squirrely tricks to avoid handing over documents.

For example, I'm currently dealing with the Privy Council Office—which is essentially the nerve centre for the public service—who are refusing to release the information I've requested on a CD, citing "national security"reasons. Instead they're trying to charge me nearly $100 to print off the paper. Because apparently it's 1994.

And it's not just me. One requester was told that that a request would take three years to​ complete. One time, a department red​acted David Cameron's name. Another time, the government redacted ​its own name.

Regardless, Clement says the system is getting better and that his new Open Government A​ction Plan is proactively releasing information, so people don't need filing requests to get the information.

Critics have said, essentially, that the pla​n sucks, pointing out that all that supposedly useful information posted online is really just geographic data that was available anyway—of the 213,000-plus datasets posted online, 96 percent are GeoData.

Oh, and VICE also used the ATI system to prove that Tony Clement's bureaucrats are spying on y​our Twitter account. Predictably, he says they're not r​eally doing that.

The MP from Muskoka admitted to VICE that, yes, maybe bureaucrats are spying on you. And he would hope it stops. But he's just one man.

We put those criticisms to the minister. And given that he's also a m​usic nerd, we also asked him about his favourite albums of 2014.

VICE: You're the minister in charge of transparency. What's the plan?
Tony Clement: I think the good news is that technology is our friend, and we are using it more effectively every year to open up the government. I've done a lot of speaking around the country on this issue—I get very dramatic at times—and one of the things I say is that, since the dawn of time, since individuals created collective organizations, governments have collected and hoarded information. But we live in an era, for the first time in history, where governments are pushing information out to individuals, to researchers, to NGOs, to citizens, to entrepreneurs, and I want Canada to be at the forefront of this.

The brand-new URL that we have, open.​canada.ca, has been improved as a result of feedback from the researcher community. More than 200,000 datasets are now available online and they continue to be curated and added to. It's created a new standard in our government where the default position is that the datasets will be published, not hoarded. Departments and agencies will have to prove to me why they shouldn't. So the default position is open. This year also saw the successful completion of the first hac​kathon in the history of the federal government. We were hoping for about 100 coders to participate —we actually got over 900. So all of that is good news. There's always more to do, I grant you that, but I think we're making solid steps.

The criticism of the open data initiative is that it's information that isn't tremendously pertinent to journalists or NGOs, and the info that people are looking for is still stuck being the ATI system. Is there more to do?
My vision is that, as we continue to pour out more data sets online, this will start to have an impact on the need for ATI requests because we'll have more of the information available online. So that's where I see this going long-term. The fact of the matter is that datasets are very useful for citizens. I'll give you a few examples of stuff that are part of our everyday lives now. You wouldn't even think of them of being 'open data' but they are. Every Canadian has a weather app on their device. So guess where the information comes from? It's from Environment Canada data. Most people have a map app on their mobile device—well the transit information, the road information, comes from municipal open data. So this is stuff that makes people's lives easier.

Everybody's facing the same time crunch. If we can give people more time by making their day more efficient, if they're able to plan their day better, it'll certainly help everybody. These are the kind of things that we're going to continue to push our there. We're going to be opening the open data exchange, as well, which is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs commercialize data. I think the trend line is very favourable.

What about the ATIP system? How do you fix a system that everyone, except those in government, agrees is broken?
Well let me just go over the stats, because they are relevant. We've released a record number of requests, released a record amount of materials, and turnaround times have generally improved. The last statistical analysis saw yearly requests processed jump to 54,000. That's a 27 percent increase over the previous year. And we released six million pages of records this year, an increase of nearly two million, so that means more access. And I think I'm quite willing to take credit for that. Our government is willing to take credit for that. Since 2006, we have expanded coverage of the system to cover over 200 institutions including crown corporations. So my point of view is that we have released more completed ATI requests than the Trudeau, Turner, Mulroney, Campbell, Chretien and Martin governments combined. That's a record I think we can be proud of.

You can say that number of pages that are being disclosed is going up, but so are complaints. How do you defend the fact that, despite some positive numbers, there also appear to be some very serious structural problems?
When we looked at the number of requests completed within 30 days, the percentage has increased 55 percent to 65 percent, so that shows that Canadians' right to access is healthy right now. We have increased spending on the system—it's gone up about $10 million from 2008 to 2013. That's a 20 percent increase. So we are putting the resources in there. We think the system is being managed, by virtue of the structure of the legislation, and it's being managed well. As we pour more of this online. I think the system will only improve.

I understand that there's a push to create a new structure for the ATIP system, one that's more cloud-based and that would facilitate online requests. Can you run through that?
It's in the early phases, but we figure more online requests are occurring, and when you have an online platform, the format can be more user friendly for the applicant. So all that is happening. I've been pushing for the past year to get the vendor community involved about how a cloud-based information system could work. There are going to be clear rules: it has to respect privacy and it of course has to respect national security, so those are some of the challenges of any cloud based system, as we discovered in 2014. So that's an ongoing discussion. So I look forward to some of those conclusions being made in 2015.

Records have come out that show that bureaucrats have been tracking CanadiansFacebook and Twitter feeds, especially those that are critical of the government. You said that doesn't happen. Do you think it's appropriate for bureaucrats to be spying on Canadians that are critical of the government?
I would say this to every public servant: everybody has to play by the directives in places to protect Canadians privacy. They have to play by the rules. So to the extent that there are any issues with that, I think that managers have to make sure that they make sure that their public servants are adhering to the directives that are in place.

Would you consider looking into that more thoroughly? Evidently this is something that has happened repeatedly and consistently.
Fair point. It's up to each department each manager and each deputy minister to be part of the solution in that respect. I can't police the entire government system on that. We do rely on each deputy minister to do his or her job. And these issues of privacy are not going to go away—we have to have the proper balance of privacy. So I think this is a fair discussion to have and we will continue to have that. And I would say that people's expectations have changed, too. Where before this wouldn't be an issue, or a media event, now it is. And that's the reality of the situation. Governments, in order to be legitimate and credible, have to strike that balance.

Alright, top five albums of 2014.
Jack White —Lazaretto
Foo Fighters —Sonic Highways
St Vincent —self-titled
​Royal Blood —self-titled
​Black Keys —Turn Blue

Thanks for your time
All the best to you and your family.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Justin on ​Twitter.