Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario Brian Beamish says the face of the public service has changed a lot since the province passed its Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in 1987, but the law hasn’t kept pace.
Beamish is still putting his own stamp on the office after succeeding Ann Cavoukian in 2014. Cavoukian had served as commissioner for 17 years, a time that spanned four premiers and saw the Internet emerge as the dominant form of information sharing.
TVO.org spoke to Beamish about the direction he wants to take as privacy commissioner, where Ontario falls short when it comes to transparency and privacy, and how public expectations around government information sharing have changed.
You succeeded a long-serving and high-profile information and privacy commissioner in Ann Cavoukian. Does that come with any pressures or challenges?
Well, I’ve felt very comfortable taking over from Ann. There’s no question she was very high-profile: she had a well-earned reputation in the privacy world internationally. She had her own style and priorities. Because I have worked at the commission since 1999 in various roles, I felt comfortable in just being myself.
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How are your priorities and styles different?
I wanted to have a real focus on Ontario, and there’s two parts to that. I wanted to make sure that our tribunal services were maximizing the service we were providing to the public. I also wanted to make sure that we were focusing on the kinds of assistance we could give to government organizations or organizations in the health care field to help them meet their responsibilities under the law.
Also, the commission for many years was known for its work in the area of privacy. Which is great: a well-earned reputation there. But we are also the information commissioner, and I wanted to make sure we were paying the same kind of attention to our responsibilities under the access to information part of our mandate.
Between protecting the private information of Ontarians and the ability of citizens to access government information, which part of the job takes up more of your time these days?
My experience is that, generally speaking, government agencies understand privacy pretty well. There’s a lot of work to be done there in assisting them in [procedurally adhering to privacy law], but I think we’re starting from a pretty good base in terms of an awareness of privacy. It can be a little bit of a tougher sell on the access side, because governments don’t necessarily naturally embrace access to information and transparency and the proactive disclosure of information.
In your latest annual report, you state that while Ontario was one of the first provinces in Canada to create access and privacy legislation, it now lags behind the standards behind other Canadian jurisdictions. Where is the province furthest behind?
The provincial act came into effect in 1987, and if you think how the business of government was done in 1987 and compare it to now, it’s totally different. I think the act could be updated to recognize the new realities of information management. There’s also the issue of integrated service delivery: how services can be provided across ministries and across services but in a way that still respects privacy. And I think there’s a great opportunity here to use technology in terms of open data, and proactively disseminating information that is in the hands of government to the public.
Also, over 25-plus years of processing freedom of information appeals and doing privacy investigations, there are technical improvements to the law that I think would smooth work for the public, for us and for government institutions.
In the report you say there needs to be more clarity as to which government organizations are covered under the province’s information and privacy act. After 30 years, why is there still confusion about this?
Well, for example, TVO, which receives a lot of government money, is not an agency under the ct. Our basic principle is if an organization is receiving substantial funds from the government or if it is in effect performing a public function on behalf of the government, it should be covered by the act. It has been piecemeal in terms of adding areas to coverage. For example, originally universities and hospitals were not covered, and have been brought in over the last decade. But rather than piecemeal additions I think there’s a need to set down some principles on when organizations will be covered by freedom of information and privacy legislation.
What’s the rationale for certain agencies not to be covered at this point?
I’m not sure there is a rationale, to be quite honest with you.
I’m guessing that when the act was first started they applied only to the actual ministries, and then our perception of what should be accessible to the public has expanded. Is that it?
I think that’s a really good point. We’ve seen the development of public-private partnerships. Government has taken certain responsibilities and devolved them over to outside organizations, although they’re still doing what seems to be quasi-government work. The face of public service has changed a lot since 1987.
In the report you’re also pushing for certain government records to be proactively disclosed to the public by law. One theory on why people are so cynical about politics today is that they know too much about how the sausage is made. Not that we’re there yet, but do you think there’s ever a point where there can be too much transparency?
I hadn’t heard that particular theory. It sounds like the kind of theory that would be put forward by people who are inside government, and does sound a bit self-serving. When I look not just at Ontario, but around the world, the cynicism towards government seems to be generated more by a feeling of being alienated from government. A sense that there’s a lack of accountability by government, that citizens are lacking a role in helping to shape policy. I see it as just the opposite.
Would you say that, for all the work that still needs to be done, government today is more accountable and more transparent than it was, say, 50 years ago?
Absolutely I do, yes.
If that’s the case, why are we more cynical about government now than we apparently were 50 years ago?
I’m probably older than you. There was a fairly significant level of cynicism back when I was young. I can’t say whether that level has increased or decreased. I think part of this comes back to public expectations. It may be that 50 years ago, the expectation of people wasn’t that they should have access to information and services and have some say in it. I think public expectation is changing and I think there is a reasonable expectation that there should be an ability to contribute to and have some insight into how government is operating. Part of that may be the access that people now are capable of having through technology. I think the expectation is now is that information should be available to people from their home. They should be able to get on the computer and find out what’s going on in terms of municipal services and government organizations.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.