The Harper government will direct bureaucrats to think of disclosing information by default. To keep track of everything, it will create a hosted government-wide records database

The feds have an “action plan” for open government

The federal government has released its promised action plan on open government with a promise.

Treasury Board president Tony Clement said this week that as part of the three-year plan Ottawa will issue a directive to 106 federal departments and agencies on what they must do to maximize the availability of government information to the public online.

To help keep track of almost everything it has, it will also create a huge government-wide records management database of government documents. That records database will be hosted outside the government.

(ON VIDEO: Tony Clement on shared services, IT procurement reform and open government)

The directive, which will identify the nature of information to be published, the timing, formats, and standards that departments will have to adopt, will be issued within the next 12 months.

“The clear goal of this directive is to make open government and open information the ‘default’ approach” for Ottawa, the plan says.

Essentially, the directive will mean bureaucrats should make all non-personal federal information public unless it is specifically exempted.

However, the plan doesn’t detail what will be exempt.

It’s expected that personal information, such as tax records held by Revenue Canada and criminal and security information held by federal policy and security agencies won’t be covered.

It is also assumed exempted material will include documents that go to the cabinet as well as communications to and from foreign governments.

But there are reams of data and reports assembled by the departments that can be released.

As part of the plan a new Open Government License to use documents will created in the next 12 months. It would promote the reuse of federal information as widely as possible by removing restrictions on the reuse of published Government of Canada information.

Bureaucrats have been using a number of licences for published information, usually based on the principle that the Crown has copyright over everything it creates.

Details of how the new licence will work and what it will limit weren’t released.

Open government expert David Eaves has mixed feelings about the action plan. On the one hand he’s disappointed Canada isn’t “vaulting ourselves to the head of the pack” as leaders on open government, particularly compared to the U.S. and Britain.

In particular he’s not happy the Harper government apparently has no plans to improve the Access to Information Act, which lets residents demand federal information. For several years federal Information Commissioners have complained that Ottawa is disclosing less and taking longer to do it.

The action plan does say Ottawa will reduce the costs of information access searches.

On the other hand, Eaves added, the action plan includes “a number of important steps.” The commitment to create a new Open Government License “has promise, but a lot of it is going to come down to what actually happen.”

Overall, the action plan is “a very decent framework,” he said. “The government’s done a whole bunch of things to put us on a solid footing to do some very interesting things.”

But “there are real questions about access to information that are still outstanding.”

The real test, Eaves wrote in a blog, will be whether these and other promises to entrench open government will help when a controversial public issue erupts.

A number of national, regional and local governments around the world have embraced the open government movement, which is aimed at giving public access to stores of data and reports. The goal is to make governments more transparent to residents.

Canada is one of a number of countries that will be at in the Open Government Partnership conference in Brazil starting April 17. Clement will hold a press conference the following day to discuss the action plan.

The federal government has gradually been opening its files, starting in 1983 with the passage of the Access to Information Act. In March 2011, the Harper government announced an open government strategy and promised an action plan to implement it.

Part of the strategy was the creation of an open data Web portal pilot project (Data.gc.ca), where government departments can post raw data. The portal now has more that 272,000 datasets from 20 departments.

Over 150 new data sets were added this week, including details on the GST/HST incremental federal rebate for municipalities, general corporation income statistics and non-personal statistics on T1 income tax filings.

To help Canadians find other material there will be several initiatives:
– A government-wide electronic records database will be created over the next three years. Called GCDocs, it will be hosted outside of the government.;
– A new consolidated federal portal called GCWeb will be created that will include a one-stop search of all federal Web pages and information. According to Treasury Board press secretary Sean Osmar, there are about 2,600 federal Web sites. There’s no need for this complexit, he said in an email;
– The government will create what it calls a Virtual Library – an online searchable repository of published federal documents including consultant reports, Access to Information summaries, government research, presentations and white papers.

The Virtual Library will start slowly, with a pilot project a year from now.

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