A tale of two ideals

By Roxanne Caron

My work this summer at the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) focused on issues of access to information, government transparency and freedom of speech. A significant component of what this NGO does is the evaluation of access to information policies put out by countries. This right to information (RTI) rating, with a possible total of 150 points, evaluates many different aspects of government transparency and the concrete implementation of a citizen’s right to access information, such as the existence and strength of an oversight body, the possibility to appeal a decision, clearly defined and not overly broad exceptions to this access, clear, identified and easy procedures to request information and obtain a reply in a swift manner, and so on.

In relation to this, one of my tasks this summer was helping in the evaluation of a forthcoming policy from the Inter-American Development Bank aimed at its private sector arm, IDB Invest. I quickly learned that a lot of reading between the lines was involved with evaluating these policies, and that the devil truly was in the details. Even with the very clear assessment grid from the RTI rating, my first draft overlooked many important issues, and the comments that came back to me made me realize it is ill-advised to consider most of the criteria as black and white, and to look for nuances and crucial details in how they are worded, framed and implemented. A longer second look at the policy showed gaps that affected the document’s potential to truly enhance access to information. A good thing however was that IDB Invest itself invited this type of assessment, as it opened a 6 months public consultation period on the recently written draft. The final and official document should then see the light of day somewhere in late 2018 or early 2019, hopefully reflecting the comments CLD and other organizations and experts formulated on the draft.

As mentioned, a key aspect is the implementation of these policies themselves. Even if the policy is perfect on paper, there needs to be a further assessment on how it translates on a day-to-day basis in the country or organization where it stems from. This idea of implementation is at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals that are following the Millennium Development Goals that completed its cycle in 2015. Assessing the effective implementation of policies proves to be a lot more difficult than assessing the policies as a written document. How to make sure prescribe delays are respected? That the appeal mechanism described is indeed accessible for citizens making requests? Fact-checking this kind of details is a time-consuming endeavor, that requires a lot more knowledge about the country or organization’s operation. Furthermore, providing access to information engages costs, and may sometimes pit other values or principles against it.

This fact has never been clearer to me than when the topic of access to information in Canada came up around some excellent craft beer in the North End neighborhood of Halifax. In Canada, there is a large backlog of documents that could be made freely available online, but are not since they ought to be translated (in most cases from English to French), and publishing unilingual documents would go against other federal government principles. This results in most documents being available only on a per request basis, which significantly hinders the free flow of information. For some around the table, the way to go was evident: documents should be released, and if not in the two languages, at least in the language they were originally written – this is what would promote greater access to information, after all. For others, though, it was a more complex issue. As I said before, most documents are originally written in English.

Publishing original documents regardless of initial redaction language would without a doubt end up giving a lot more weight and space to English information on federal websites. This sat uneasy for some around the table, myself included. At the time however, I couldn’t really explain in great detail why this was the case. I understood and still think of access to information as a crucial human right to ensure a free and equal civic society. But something about this “better than nothing” stance did not work for me. Furthermore, as the daughter of two unilingual francophones, I also knew that the argument uttered by anglophone colleagues that “everyone spoke some basic English, even in Quebec”, was far from the truth. After a few weeks, I came across a short op-ed in La Presse, Le français n’est pas une langue secondaire, which put in better words the concerns I had with by-passing language requirements to strengthen access to information. The text commented on the poor quality of the French documents available on the Canadian website for tendering. The Commissaire aux langues officielles found that not only some documents were published in English only, the majority of documents that were published in French and English were not translated in a consistent and quality manner. This creates a situation which is far from the “two official languages” concept found in federal statutes.

This op-ed worded better than I could why I was uneasy with the argument that publishing documents in English was better than nothing. I am not saying that it should absolutely not be done, but forgetting the issue of language inequality in the context of access to information does not serve, in the end, the very same ideals this right aims to defend. This post has been a long time in the making, simply because I continued thinking I would clarify my stance on this eventually. This has not been the case. I am still thorn between two ideals that each need to be upheld, in a scenario where imposition of one over the other necessarily brings out some cost. The best I can hope for, however, is that the debate around this issue continue to bring those two ideals together and acknowledge the potential setbacks of each option. Implementation of access to information policies is a multidimensional endeavour, and the example of the translation problematic in Canada is a good example of the challenges each country may face when furthering access to information. I can only thank Halifax’s wonderful craft breweries for providing the perfect background for animated, and necessary, discussions on these issues.

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