September 23, 2017

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Manitoba Ombudsman recommends more gov't documents be released

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba's ombudsman is recommending improved public access to government information, including provincial cabinet documents.

Charlene Paquin said consideration should be given to whether it is in the public's interest for some government information now routinely kept under wraps to be disclosed.

“We’re saying, effectively... what public bodies should be doing is considering whether there is a public interest override," she said Tuesday, after releasing a pair of reports in conjunction with a provincial government review of Manitoba privacy legislation.

Earlier this year, the Manitoba government led by Premier Brian Pallister launched a formal review of both the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and the Personal Health Information Act (PHIA). Neither have been reviewed since 2004.

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Manitoba's ombudsman is recommending improved public access to government information, including provincial cabinet documents.

Charlene Paquin said consideration should be given to whether it is in the public's interest for some government information now routinely kept under wraps to be disclosed.

"We’re saying, effectively... what public bodies should be doing is considering whether there is a public interest override," she said Tuesday, after releasing a pair of reports in conjunction with a provincial government review of Manitoba privacy legislation.

Earlier this year, the Manitoba government led by Premier Brian Pallister launched a formal review of both the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and the Personal Health Information Act (PHIA). Neither have been reviewed since 2004.

Successive provincial governments have routinely blocked the release of certain documents on the basis they are considered advice to cabinet. The ombudsman suggested in her report there ought to be a balance struck between cabinet confidentiality, for instance, and the public's right to know. Her office referees disputes between FIPPA applicants and government bodies.

Paquin further recommended any cabinet document be released within a period of 15 years, as opposed to the current 20 years.

She also proposed, under FIPPA and PHIA, the ombudsman be called the "information and privacy commissioner," as it is in other provinces, to better reflect the office's role in these areas. (The job would retain the ombudsman title in its oversight role in the delivery of other public services.)

Paquin said legislation should be tightened to ensure public bodies document their deliberations, actions and decisions.

"It’s one thing to be able to access (information), but if it’s not there to access – and it should be — then that’s a problem," she said. "This is simply a way to strengthen what I would say is already an expectation – to make it mandatory."

Meanwhile, PHIA should be amended to make it mandatory for health bodies to notify individuals of a privacy breach that may result "in a real risk of significant harm," Paquin said.

There have been a string of health-privacy breaches reported in Winnipeg in recent years, including the theft of diagnostic test information last year at Health Sciences Centre involving about 1,000 patients.

Provincial legislation does not require such breaches to be reported to those affected.

Paquin said her office is not so concerned about minor breaches, such as a fax or email being sent to the wrong person. "We don’t feel that we need those to always to be reported to us unless they have significant risk of harm," she said.

Given the rapid change in communications technology, Paquin said government shouldn't wait more than a dozen years for the next review of FIPPA and PHIA. She's recommending they both be examined every five years.

The development of electronic health record systems poses privacy challenges, she said. "It’s got fabulous benefits in a lot of ways. But public bodies and trustees need to be ensuring that they have those safeguards in place to minimize that risk (of privacy breaches)."

The use of Twitter by U.S. President Donald Trump to announce appointments and policy changes raises potential issues about the recording and maintenance of government records, Paquin acknowledged.

"That kind of change in the way governments and individuals do business is exactly why we need to be reviewing legislation like this in an ongoing manner," she said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Larry Kusch.

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