Next Monday, 28th September 2020 is International Right to Know Day – a global event raising awareness of our rights to access government information, promoting freedom of information as a fundamental of democracy and good governance.
In Canada, the Public Service Information Community Connection (PSICC), a membership-based social enterprise, supports teams and individuals tasked with meeting public institutions’ obligations around open government, freedom of information and protection of personal data. Their contribution to Right To Know Day 2020 is a weeklong online event addressing issues relevant to public sector information professionals. PSICC’s Dustin Rivers joined me for a brief chat in advance of the event.
How did you come to found PSICC?
Back in 2002, my future business partner and I were working our first real jobs after university. We were young, entrepreneurial, thought we could do better, so we moved out to Ottawa and started producing conferences in the nation’s capital.
We got our first real break when we were approached by Ontario’s Ministry of Government Services, Access and Privacy Branch. They liked our website, and the fact we’d recently built in the capacity for online registration. They were looking for event planners, and we took the job. We built a good rapport with them over the years, and being an inquisitive type, I started to pay attention to the content that we were producing at these events.
What I found out was that in Canada, access and privacy is a provincial construct; the legislation primarily resides in our provinces. It can affect everything paid for by public funds, from government agencies and Crown Corporations to school boards and police departments. It became clear that if it existed in Ontario, it will also be found across the other provinces.
Our provincial conferences had their content determined by an advisory community, so that the attendees would have a say in what was discussed, rather than having it dictated to them. One of the things they wanted to learn about was what was going on in other provinces; this led to a Commissioners’ Panel, where peers from different provinces would come together and compare their experiences and the difference nuances between jurisdictions. Soon we were running 7 or 8 different regional conferences across the country, plus local advisory boards and other gatherings.
We had no idea, but we’d actually created a community. All those events speaking to regional audiences interested in regulation of information and privacy could be connected.
Your own values come into play as part of this role, too.
I was known from the first years of school as someone who was willing to question authority. I got letters sent home to my mother! In university, that evolved into an interest in student politics. As students, we wanted to have a voice, to express our opinions.
As you grow older, you increasingly realise the impact of government on every aspect of our lives, and on the world which you’re bringing your children into. Moving to Ottawa meant moving to a government town: 90% of what people talk about here is government, and they’re passionate about the issues which affect the public sector.
Right to Know is more than just access to information; it’s open government, it’s open data. It’s the basis for a lot of our other rights and freedoms. Whether you think so or not, as a government information professional, your job is really important. All you have to do is look around the world: right now, we have so many scary international examples where the right to know is not respected by the people in power. It’s either something they try and skirt, as a barrier to what they want to do, or it’s bastardized to subvert the true meaning of freedom of information. Such work may look bureaucratic, but it’s vital.
Living in democracies, we have the right to hold our politicians to account, to know that they’re not spending our money inappropriately, to know that they’re not snooping in our private lives, and to know that the information we give them isn’t going to be used against us.
I made a choice: I could be a politician – which I was talked out of!; or a champion, a citizen’s advocate speaking through a bullhorn; or I could take what we had already created, this community, and build something stronger which affects the whole system.
The vast majority of people who work in this space believe in the principles of right-to-know, of privacy protection, and civil liberties as they pertain to a properly run democracy. As public servants, however, they are faced with the complex bureaucratic challenges of managing those issues – and those challenges are enormously important ones about which the rest of society largely doesn’t care. When you’re a citizen approaching an institution, there’s no awareness of the bureaucratic mechanism. You just think, “I just want that piece of information, I don’t care that I’m 104th in line! Give it to me within the thirty-day limit or I’m going to complain to the Commissioner.”
We see PSICC as a way of helping information professionals to do a better job. It can feel, in these roles, like you’re on an island by yourself in a really big ocean, and you can’t even canoe over to the next island for Sunday dinner! There was no mechanism to talk with colleagues, the registration and transport costs associated with industry events could be prohibitive, and even if you did go to an event, how many of the presentations on the programme would be relevant?
People engaged in this work are often marginalized; the role they’re playing in their organization is often seen as administrative, although it is a legal responsibility. An administrative assistant may be given this duty, managing a piece of legislation on behalf of their organization, with minimal support. PSICC helps people working in this space to build connections with peers, to recognise the significance of the contribution they make to their organization.
What’s the benefit of bringing together people from across Canada’s differing jurisdictions?
There are over 25,000 people in the country who contribute to managing public sector information in some way, shape, or form. A lot of those individuals bear that responsibility as one of several roles, and their resources to meet that responsibility will vary with the size of their organization.
Remember that even the very smallest municipality, which might barely have part-time staff, is subject to the same legislation and standards as the largest government department. The expectation of the citizen is the same; they don’t care if you’re big or small, they just want to know what they want to know.
Having a community like this provides much needed support for institutions, as they can reach out to peers of the same size, or in the same sector, across the provinces. We talk about the pet issues or local focus of the Commissioner in a given province, we look at comparative statistics – it turns out the most inquisitive people in Canada, with the most per capita information requests of their public agencies, are Manitobans, for example. City can speak to city, small municipalities can speak to one another. The dividing line tends to be between type of organization and size of organization, rather than between provincial boundaries.
I’m sure COVID has had an impact on your events too, forcing the conference to evolve.
Definitely; and while many in the events industry have been really daunted by the challenges of 2020, I think of it as an opportunity for us to continue our evolution from an organiser of conferences to a producer of content; a broadcaster, effectively.
Even prior to COVID, we could see that in a digital age, the question was: “Who are we to dictate how people ingest the content we put in front of them?” We had feedback that our content was good, so the other issue was the delivery mechanism.
When you look at historic examples like the Toronto Star, a dominant newspaper for most of the 20th Century, you can see the dangers of forgetting your purpose. The Star began as a paper intended to fight for social justice; its editor Joseph Atkinson was a champion of many causes, and saw his publication as a mechanism for improving society.
In the 1970s, the Torstar conglomerate purchased the romance publisher Harlequin, to make use of the Star’s printing presses when they weren’t running off newspapers for four hours a day. It was a great move – up until the 90s and the arrival of the internet. They had mistaken themselves for a publishing company, didn’t pay attention to the emergence of online culture or the subsequent arrival of Facebook, stuck to the old metrics around print circulation and print advertising, and as a result they got into difficulties.
I see my role with PSICC now as giving our community as many ways to access the content as possible. How can we make sure that people hear and see what they want to, how they want to, and when they want to?
That should never change, even if now we don’t have to spend time organising a buffet menu! We’re still managing speakers, registrations, customer service, gathering abstracts and all the other essentials of bringing together a gathering like this. The biggest change for me is that I’m not going to have to step onto a stage; I’ll be running the show from in front of four TV screens.
You’re looking to welcome a global audience to the conference this year. What can that wider audience learn from Canada’s public sector information professionals?
We’re trying to introduce our community to the world this year, so that they get a sense of what is being done in this nation, across all of its jurisdictions, in response to these issues. We already have people across the Canadian provinces who are happy to build on the connections they make with peers nationally at PSICC; they’d be ecstatic to get on the phone or Zoom and have a call with colleagues farther afield.
Similar regulatory and legislative mechanisms enforcing respect for the right to know apply in nations around the world; we all have government agencies, publicly funded institutions, and municipalities with information obligations and duties. How many people on the global stage contribute in some way, shape, or form to the right to know for democracies? How many people are dedicated to upholding those values? We’re not in this alone. Making those connections not just in one province, not just in one country, is only going to make us better.
If we can contribute to what colleagues overseas are doing in some small way, then we’ll have accomplished our goal not just on the national, but the international stage.