Have you ever had a difficult time gathering government data together on a single topic in a single place?  This can sometimes be challenging.  For example, mandatory disclosure documents: each government department is required to disclose  information such as travel & hospitality expenses; contracts; position reclassifications; grant & contribution awards; and proven workplace wrong-doing.  Until recently, you would have had to go to each website and click on each mandatory disclosure link separately to research this information.  The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat does provide a list of mandatory disclosure pages for each federal government website but this is just a directory – there is no search interface that would allow you to search the content of those pages all at once.

Fortunately you now have a “one-stop” search option thanks to the efforts of VisibleGovernment.ca – an advocacy group devoted to “improv(ing) civic participation and government accountability in Canada by promoting online tools for government transparency.” VisibleGovernment.ca has  a great database called disclosed.ca which you can search for federal government contract information by keyword.

“Disclosed.ca keeps track of 247253 contracts available since 2004 under the Government of Canada Proactive Disclosure mandate.”  Each entry includes:

  • the name of the government agency and the vendor used
  • a brief description of the work undertaken or service provided
  • contract date and duration
  • value – i.e., cost of the contract in dollars.

Another tricky type of information to access from a single search point is MP voting records.  The Parliament of Canada’s website does provide a vote tab in the profile for each MP, but you might prefer doing your research on the How’d They Vote website instead.   This “non-partisan website” was launched by an individual in 2005 and offers an impressive array of features.  You can:

  • View a list of all the MPs for the current Parliament and session – with figures for categories of information such as number of dissensions, absences, bills proposed, words spoken and number of times they were quoted and you can re-sort the list by any of these categories.
  • You can browse the voting history of bills for the current Parliament and session
  • You can browse a list of all the bills under consideration for the current Parliament and session
  • You can download a list of the sitting MPs and their voting records for the previous sessions of the current Parliament AND both sessions of the 39th Parliament as well.

Another area of difficulty surrounds Freedom of Information requests.  It can be very expensive and time consuming to make Freedom of Information requests.  You can learn about the Federal process by consulting the website for the Office of the Information Commission of Canada and the BC Provincial process by consulting the website for the Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner for BC.   What’s lacking however, is a database of Freedom of Information requests that would allow you to search and view requests – and even better – a database of released documents that you could download.  While numerous advocacy groups in the US have put up databases of FOIA requests and documents (see our Feb 10, 2010 post for details) very little of a similar nature exists in Canada.   Fortunately we can now alert you to one promising project:

  • Open Government Records is software for creating freedom of information (FOI) and Access to Information (ATI) repositories. These FOI or ATI repositories offer many options to researchers who use freedom of information. OGR has features for making, tracking, storing, and publishing the text of freedom of information requests and similar features for the actual disclosed record.”
  • The categories of documents that will be collected are: public servant curricula; scholarships & grants; “amber light” requests; and documents from Ministries of Education.
    • To date we have not been able to locate any uploaded documents, but there are several Freedom of Information requests deposited and available for viewing.  If  this site ultimately does begin to be populated with  “freed” documents it will be a dynamite research resource!

Need to look at US government documents that don’t seem to be publicly available?  All may not be lost!  Thanks to the tireless efforts of journalists, researchers, and average citizens thousands of documents that would otherwise remain closed to public scrutiny are made available each year through Freedom of  Information Act (FOIA)  requests.  Even better:  many of these folks  have contributed their FOIA documents to freely searchable web archives.  Here are a few of the best:

  • National Security Archive at George Washington University: “collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The Archive also serves as a repository of government records on a wide range of topics pertaining to the national security, foreign, intelligence, and economic policies of the United States.”
  • GovernmentAttic: “provides electronic copies of hundreds of interesting Federal Government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act….(including) fascinating historical documents, reports on items in the news, oddities…and government bloopers.”
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation:  This site focuses on collecting and disseminating documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act “on controversial government surveillance programs, lobbying practices, and intellectual property initiatives.”
  • American Civil Liberties Union:   This portion of the ACLU website provides access to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act “relating to the abuse and torture of prisoners in U.S. detention centers overseas.”

Note,  some US Federal Departments and Agencies also have well-organized and fairly comprehensive collections of their own FOIA documents, such as

Huge kudos to Sheryl Adam for suggesting this topic and for finding these sites!!!  Watch the blog for a future entry on similar Canadian sources of FOI documents.

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