04/11/2012 07:17 EDT | Updated 06/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Access To Information Changes Will Bring Online Requests, Virtual Library

OTTAWA - A proposed federal project would allow Canadians to submit and pay online for requests under the Access to Information Act.

The initiative is a feature of Canada's plan to make government more transparent, to be presented next week at a major international conference.

Delegates from 53 countries plan to gather in Brasilia on April 17-18 for the annual meeting of the Open Government Partnership in order to spell out commitments on making government more open and accountable.

Critics have complained that Canada's open government initiatives to date have largely been limited to repacking existing information in new formats.

Access laws have also been widely disparaged for being antiquated and too easy for the government to circumvent.

Canada's commitments for next week's meeting include a promise to have a number of departments accept Access to Information requests and payment via cyberspace — with the goal of expanding this practice to all agencies.

Currently, requesters must file a paper form along with a cheque for $5.

The blueprint, released Wednesday, also pledges:

— a new directive on open government that will provide guidance to 106 federal departments and agencies on maximizing the availability of online information;

— a universal open government licence aimed at removing restrictions on the reuse of federal information, including data, website material and publications;

— a searchable online repository of published government documents of all kinds, creating a virtual library that includes everything from consultants' reports to federal research.

The multi-year plan also includes efforts to make material held by Library and Archives Canada more accessible by removing restrictions wherever possible.

"The Government of Canada archives contain a wealth of documentary heritage, and it is important that Canadians have access to this information," says the plan.

Another initiative would make information about Canadian foreign aid spending easier to find, use and compare.

"Transparency is key to fostering accountability which is a hallmark of Canada's tradition in providing international aid," says the document.

"Those involved in aid programs will be able to better track what aid is being used for, and what it is achieving, helping us to ensure that each dollar goes as far as possible toward stated goals."

The government also promises to build on its fledgling open data project, designing a "next-generation" web platform to make data sets on subjects ranging from labour statistics to meteorological patterns available to the public.