Gas Busters Part 47: Transparency Changes for Ontario’s Deficient Laws and Gov’t IT

The reason I started the Gas Busters series was because the government’s initial document dump in response to motions passed by the legislature requiring disclosure appeared to be an intentional attempt to conceal the truth about what happened with the gas plants. Turning thousands of pages of information into image-only scans looked like the type of engineered snowstorm regulated utilities often use to cover their tracks.

Creating Gas Busters was my attempt to defeat that strategy by converting the scanned documents into a searchable database. Since completing that work, the scope of work presented on Gas Busters has extended into other areas including Freedom of Information investigations and reporting on the on-going public hearings.

As events have developed, it has become clear that the government’s intent to conceal the truth is not just an administrative exercise. The Information and Privacy Commissioner’s report this week identifies deliberate law breaking at the highest level of the Liberal government. The full scope of that law breaking has yet to be uncovered but the evidence available so far suggests a widespread and planned effort at the highest levels to destroy information and to block information from being created. We are going to learn a lot more as the Information and Privacy Commissioner pursues the FOI adjudications she refers to in her report, one of which has been documented in recent postings on Gas Busters.

The emerging picture is that key officials at the very top of Ontario’s Liberal government were operating like an organized crime group. They weren’t just destroying documents. Cabinet ministers were arranging business deals worth many hundreds of millions of dollars in gangster style meetings with no minutes.

The basic plot line about gas plant scandal — powerful political figures wasting vast public resources for personal political gain and then covering up the facts — has an eternal character about it. Arrogant, power hungry governments abusing the public trust are one of the constants of history. Finding effective means of dealing with this reality is one of humanity’s great projects.

McGuinty and Wynne are sticking to their feeble talking point that the solution for the illegality revealed by the Information and Privacy Commission is better training of underlings. This statement is a nothing more than a denial of accountability.

Replacing the Ontario Liberals is a necessary but insufficient remedy.

The gas plant scandal reveals that the laws and technology that Ontario relies upon to ensure transparency of government information have gaping holes.

One deficiency getting a lot of attention is that the legislation governing official record keeping contains no sanctions for breaches, although theft of public property has criminal sanctions that might apply.

A quip attributed to Lubna Azmi is that “A smart person knows all the rules so he can break them wisely.”

Even if sanctions were in place — as they should be — there are no positive incentives to ensure compliance. What if contractors receiving government business were at risk of having their contracts reopened if it was determined that government agents involved in negotiating the contract failed to comply with transparency rules?

Another deficiency that the gas scandal reveals is the miserably underpowered IT capacity of the Ontario Public Service. The Ontario Gov’t email storage system, based on obsolete RAID technology, is massively underpowered, although it may well be costly to build and maintain. According to the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the government’s system is incapable of maintaining archives going back three months, let alone three years when key events in the gas scandal were happening, due to insufficient capacity. This is a massive structural failure of the public service to take its transparency duties seriously. Amazon’s S3 system, which this website uses, is a far more capable storage system than the Ontario government currently uses and could probably do a far better job than the existing government system at a fraction of the cost.

The Ontario government’s performance in the disclosure of information about the gas scandal would be comic if it wasn’t so directly harmful. Searches for documents, even those that have not been systematically and illegally destroyed, take months. Search results have proven to be unreliable, as illustrated by the government’s sequential gas plant document dumps in response to motions of the legislature. Each successive document dump is presented with official assurances that now “all information has been released”. The cost of information to the public is absurd. As one recent example, on Friday the Ontario Power Authority told me that they have some documents pursuant to one of my Freedom of Information requests related to gas plant negotiations in 2012 but that if I want to see them I have to cough up $1,780.00. I’m still not sure how I will handle that one.

Ontario needs to renew its governmental philosophy of transparency. The Ontario Public Service needs to update its information practices to create an architecture of information and communication with accountability principles embedded in its methodologies. For example, all public business must be permanently archived in an orderly fashion to facilitate efficient recovery. Without a new approach to information, public officials conducting public business have too many opportunities to avoid accountability for their actions.

2 Comments

  1. To place a price on information that is supposed to be in the “public domain” is almost bordering on black-mail.
    The OPA is a tax payer funded entity and to demand your payment of $1780.00 to obtain those documents is sacrilege!
    I bet if the OPP asked for them the OPA would be hand delivering them to the Police along with a free box of donuts just to have them leave them alone!
    Wasn’t the OPA supposed to be a temporary agency?

  2. Pingback: Ontario Info & Privacy Commissioner's report finds rot in public service | Tom Adams Energy - ideas for a smarter grid

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