Citizens require access to public records in order to become properly informed about the activities of their governments and to provide sound feedback on government policies, plans and programs. However, many Canadian citizens have learned through experience that freedom of information (FOI) legislation is not properly serving citizens. As a result, they lack information and informed interactions with their elected representatives, and are reduced to musing about public affairs with other citizens. As a federal election year dawns, an alternative approach is needed — and soon, because the relationship between citizens and governments is under serious challenge. Claims of “fake news” are too often displacing discussions that are based on evidence.
An alternative approach is readily available, whereby citizens have access to public records in a manner consistent with living in a free and democratic society, and the principles of transparency and accountability of governments are more than just buzzwords.
Failure to provide access
Let’s focus on access to the records of municipal governments, which are often claimed to be the governments closest to the people, and which have the most direct impact on citizens.
The 2018 municipal election campaign in Ontario serves as an excellent case in point. Citizens, journalists and candidates have faulted municipal governments for failing to provide appropriate access to municipal records including budget documents, project contracts, police service reports and development proposals.
Unfortunately, freedom-of-information legislation has proven of little value to citizens.