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On info, data & access to

I was thinking today about a Freedom of Information request I filed a couple weeks back. Dropped $5 bucks in an envelope along with the form and sent it off to Ottawa. I’ve filed a handful of these requests in my time, but never at the Federal level.

It’s a request that could have been avoided entirely, saving me the price of five small coffees at McDonalds this week, had my MP and/or the crown corporation in question, engaged my community in a public consultation process prior to making an impactful decision- or even if response letters had been returned. Better yet, the info I’m seeking could have been made available through an embrace of the open data movement. Falling within the vein of financial and operating data that could routinely be released to public, both for informative purposes, and as a open & public performance measure.

But with less public data, and more unanswered correspondence than I’d like – I’m out five bucks and left sitting here tapping out a blog entry and wondering if a reply from the government is going to come before Christmas.

In thinking about this blog post, my train of thought went east, then veered north, so we’re going to cover two different paths to the public disclosure of government info.

First, OpenData:

 

– Provide a single-source for information and data catalogs. Don’t bury and scatter this information across government departments and obscure websites. Edmonton’s opendata catalog is great example. A single well-maintained and well-publicized entry point for individuals, businesses, organizations, etc.

– Make the process for requesting data easy and within view of the public. Take an application like IdeaScale, which allows anyone to submit and rank thoughts/ideas, and put it to use for this. Let folks openly submit requests for government datasets, let us see what others have requested, and throw our support behind them. And like the data catalog itself, do it through a central, and easy to find portal.

– If it’s FOIPed as a matter of public interest, make it public. A few years back my Community League successfully got our hands on internal documentation and process info from the selection of a route for the West LRT expansion. The entire request was a few thousand pages, some of it good for mild curiosity if nothing more. But the documentation and internal analysis from the project team was interesting and highly informative. We can and did post some of it to our website, but its reach and availability to an increased audience would have benefited greatly from the city itself, placing the documents online.

 

Government is of course steered by politics, and in politics there’s always going to be those to whom the public disclosure of information, will either be a non-priority, an annoyance, or a curse. Politicians aren’t going to be lining up to put their briefing notes online. There’s always going to be a need to actually drop a cheque in an envelope along with a form asking for the disclosure of X, Y, and Z (oh, how it would be nice to be able to do this online as well).

There are also, always going to be nuisance requests. And there are ways that those who choose to file these, can be left to their own devices in what I’m going to propose. The value of freedom of information is shown constantly in those requests which bring valuable information to light – that which informs, and that which holds those in power, responsible for their actions and decisions. These requests are not always made by a media organization with the funds to pursue information, paying those extra fees that are often charged for xeroxing and a staffer’s time, (my Community League was quoted several thousand for our request), or the platform to widely release what’s revealed.

You’ve probably heard of Kickstarter, the “funding platform for creative projects”. I’d like to suggest something similar targeted towards government prosperity. Maybe it’s put together by media groups, the child of like-minded organizations, or some form of social enterprise.

I’m not going draft any potential non-profit or corporate bylaws for it here, but here is the Coles Notes version of how I’d envision its operation. Anyone – Individual, biz, etc lays out the information they’re seeking. For low-income individuals, this is the chance to have the cost of initial filing fees covered. For others, if they’ve filed a request and have been quoted additional fees to have it fulfilled, this is where our funding platform kicks in. With interested donors covering the fee request with the agreement that the information received will be published online, through the platform.

So if there are folks out there in the media or in the non-profit sector looking for a long-term transparency project, please consider this idea open to all.

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Study ranks Canada’s freedom-of-information laws dead last

Alberta gets a ‘D’ in freedom of information audit

Park It

Going to the hospital sucks.  Being in the hospital sucks.  No, I’m not telling you anything groundbreaking here, but having been to and around hospitals many times over the past decade for family members, and having gone through the UofA ER myself this past fall, I just wanted to say it.  Getting in to see family, to see a doctor, to deliver something from home, to ask questions, and/or to make some attempt to calm nerves, these are the priorities upon arriving, and once you get in the building of course.Once you’re on hospital grounds you should be in a place where care and compassion come first – where site design and operating procedures maximize to the extent possible the conveniences and minimize the distractions on patients, doctors, families and caregivers.This week, Rajendra Kale MD, Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, published an editor slamming parking costs and policies in Canadian hospitals:

Parking fees are a barrier to health care and add avoidable
stress to patients who have enough to deal with. They can and
sometimes do interfere with a clinical consultation, reducing
the quality of the interaction and therefore of care.

Dr. Kale also quotes from a 2008 press release from the Government of Scotland, announcing the termination of parking fees by their National Health Service:

“It’s simply not fair to expect patients or visitors to have to pay when they come to hospital, when they may be suffering personal anxiety, stress or grief. Put bluntly, a car parking charge is often the last thing people need.

The editorial can be downloaded in-full here: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/early/2011/11/28/cmaj.111846

The Edmonton Journal, quotes Health Minister Fred Horne in response:

“I can certainly sympathize with the plight of people, and when you’re looking after someone who is ill, perhaps a family member, it can be just one more thing that you have to deal with,”
Hospital parking fees here to stay, province says – @EdmontonJournal.com
http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Hospital+parking+fees+here+stay+province+says/5785543/story.html

The larger issue here is, I believe a need for an independent Patient Advocate who can provide an ego and personal agenda free objective outside look at the system, with the resources to lobby and press for adequate changes to address patient needs, concerns and access limitations.

On this issue, the response of the Alberta Government is that $55 million of $60 million in collected parking fees is used to maintain AHS’s parking structures, and cover maintenance and staffing costs..  Perhaps something for the Auditor General to look at in the near future.  I can’t argue the government’s $ amounts with the information available, or the validity and value of parking lot construction, maintenance agreements and so forth, and I’m not really sure if I want to spend several months fighting through with FOIP request on this.  So instead I’ll talk about the 21st century, and how while we may not have flying cars and cities on the moon, we can surely do better than a parking system that leaves patients alone in the car while the friend or family member bringing them to the ER runs off to pay for parking, or where time better spent concentrating on treatment or asking questions of physicians, or anything that focuses on the patient and their care, takes a backseat to staring at the clock and wondering how much time is left on the metre.  Even while typing this I can already hear the sounds of someone, somewhere in downtown Edmonton, typing up a memo featuring some depressing cost estimates for a smart parking system.  So how about this, I’ll park, go see my relative who’s undergoing treatment, you grab my plate # when I drive in, and when I drive out, and bill me later when I’m not sick with worry, and far from being in a mood to watch the clock.

FOIP’ed Ya!

The FOIP Act adds to all the other rights of individuals and organizations with respect to the access to information and protection of personal information within local public bodies.

Good business practices are the best way to operate in a FOIP environment. When you are making notes, or sending an e-mail, write it as though it could appear on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow. The Act doesn’t allow severing to avoid embarrassment. If events are recorded in an accurate, descriptive fashion, there is no cause for alarm in releasing records.

I mentioned e-mail: as e-mails are records, if we received a FOIP request, e-mails would be considered for release. It is worth mentioning them specifically as sometimes people are more casual in how they write e-mails, or mix business and pleasure in one note as if it were a phone call.

From:

The FOIP Act. Presentation for Elected Officials

www.servicealberta.ca/foip/documents/newly-elected-officials-foip-speaking-notes.rtf

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The FOIP act does make it possible for individuals and organizations to acquire the correspondence of individual politicians relating to government business.  In my experience, it’s neither easy nor possible without several months of exchanging correspondence and occasionally barbs with FOIP coordinators.  I’ve done it twice in the course of my volunteer activities, in relation to a specific decision and a government program.  Both requests took nearly six-months, with one ending successfully with delivery of the requested records, and the other ending in a dispute which the Privacy Commissioner ultimately refused to move on to an adjudicator.

The FOIP act does work to protect the personal lives of politicians and the right to individual privacy.  No need to worry about a FOIP coordinator copying letters to your mother and the notes on your fridge.

So when the business of government starts taking place away from formal channels, the communication resources paid for by our taxes and access to Freedom of Information requests, is there an issue?

Morton accused of evading public scrutiny with secondary email address, shredded documents

Campaign spokesman insists both practices common in government

http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Morton+accused+evading+public+scrutiny+with+secondary+email/5371349/story.html

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/prairies/alberta-investigating-tory-leadership-candidate/article2159129/

“I think I’ve done nothing out of the ordinary,” Morton said

Premier Ed Stelmach confirmed that he, too, maintains a secondary email address and uses it to conduct government business. Former deputy premier and leadership candidate Doug Horner also used a separate government email to do ministerial work.

Do provincial FOIP coordinators have access to all secondary communication channels, outside the control of the Government of Alberta, used to conduct formal government business?  Are these email addresses subject to the same data retention policies and practices in use on officially provided communication tools?  Has official government business conducted on secondary addresses been excluded from Freedom of Information Requests; ie, considered personal, not government correspondence?

Until questions are answered, I’d call this a wee bit of a problem, definitely one worthy of further investigation, both at the provincial and municipal levels.  As for it being “out of the ordinary”, well, if everyone is potentially dodging the FOIP act, intentionally or not, then I guess it isn’t.