Nova Scotians are not known for their “right to know” activism. We might march in the streets to remember veterans or to protest moose culls and school closures but typically we do not march in the streets demanding transparency and accountability from our local and provincial governments.
But Nova Scotians file more access to information requests per person than British Columbians, Albertans and all of our Maritime neighbours. It is a well-kept secret that Nova Scotians are curious about the secrets of democracy. They want to scrutinize government spending and examine for themselves the content of government contracts paid for with our tax dollars. Citizens want to know about the impact of gambling, why local governments failed to clear snow in their neighbourhoods and where the fire hydrants are located.
It is a sign of a healthy, vibrant democracy when politicians and bureaucrats are subject to effective access to information laws. Nova Scotians can be proud of our long heritage of access to information rights that began in 1977 long before the recent explosion of right to know laws around the world. Our forebears got it right when they said public bodies should be fully accountable to the public. The public must have a right of access to government records to ensure fairness in decision making, facilitate informed public participation in policy formulation and permit the airing of divergent views.
Yet, Nova Scotia’s access to information law was written at a time before cell phones, text messages and email. Big data, outsourcing and alternative service delivery weren’t even imagined and are certainly not contemplated in our access law. As a result, our outdated law is rated 51st in the world behind such countries as Russia, Azerbaijan and Bangladesh.
Access to information laws that rank higher than Nova Scotia’s feature very limited fees and very tight timelines. Oversight agencies are given strong powers to ensure that the law is effective and that responses by government are accurate and complete.
Moreover, higher-ranking access to information laws prevent governments from being able to avoid accountability by avoiding documentation. There is a growing concern in Canada and around the world that a new practice of “oral government” is undermining meaningful access rights. This is the practice in some jurisdictions of simply not writing down decisions, or using post-it notes and text messages that are quickly deleted.
Modern access laws address this concern by creating a duty to document. A requirement that politicians and bureaucrats must document deliberations, actions and decisions so that the information and rationale behind the decisions can be scrutinized by citizens.
Earlier this year Canada’s Information Commissioners called on their respective governments to create legislated duties requiring public entities to document matters related to deliberations, actions and decisions.
There is much to be learned from advances in other jurisdictions. In order to maintain our healthy, vibrant democracy and ensure that Nova Scotians continue to have a meaningful right to access government records, it is time to review and update our access laws to meet the needs of democracy in the 21st century.