The amount of data as well as personal information collected by governments everywhere and the digitalization of such information has lead to a rethink of how this information should be used and shared, not only across governments but also with citizens and the private sector. Governments find that they need to move into new areas, such as defining technological standards across the public sector, providing advice and training for their large labour forces engaged with new technology and maximizing the value to be derived from the mountains of data they control.
What other governments are doing?
Throughout the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) the need to rethink the optimal role for governments in the digital economy has been a priority for the last decade.1
Various countries are adapting the machinery of government to the digital world, digital threats and new knowledge-seeking through big data and artificial intelligence, both of which base their analyses on massive amounts of data. At the same time, the data collected and held by governments themselves are a potential source of knowledge, leading to better citizen outcomes and wealth creation.
As early as 2014 France created a General Administrator of Data, Administrateur general des données2 whose role is to coordinate data use, production and sharing within the public administration with an end to assisting in the evaluation of public policy, encouraging transparency and stimulating research and innovation.
The UK has been tracking intensely towards digitalization and proudly announced its second place in the OECD s annual Digital Government Index.3
The Index measures countries across 6 dimensions, which the OECD view as characterising a 'fully digital government': digital by design, government as a platform, data-driven public sector, open by default, user-driven, and proactiveness.
With the release of the Digital Charter in 2019 the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Industry (ISET) acknowledged the increasingly close interweave between privacy legislation and data governance more generally, including data use, standards, analysis and security requirements.4
The Digital Charter elements include building quality data sets for experimentation and innovation and taking international leadership in promoting interoperability with reference to existing frameworks like the General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union. Partnership with the private sector in these initiatives will produce benefits for both citizens and business.5
In December 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau charged the Minister of ISET:
With the support of the Minister of Canadian Heritage, create new regulations for large digital companies to better protect people's personal data and encourage greater competition in the digital marketplace. A newly created Data Commissioner will oversee those regulations.6
The position of Data Commissioner has yet to be created.
Overall, jurisdictions which aim to benefit from technological change are making efforts to adapt the rules of the data management game. It would seem Quebec is gingerly following this trend in providing for a new player on the government scene: the personal information manager.7 In a nutshell, this new entity would appear to be a personal information coordinator for the personal information held by the Quebec government.
However, no new administrative body will be created. Instead, the model is for the government to designate one or more existing public bodies to be a personal information manager where it is in the public interest or for the benefit of the persons concerned. The Commission d'accès à l'information is consulted, after which the personal information manager can be bestowed with very wide powers:
A personal information manager collects, uses or releases personal information when doing so is necessary for any of the following purposes:
- providing joint services by more than one public body or pursuing missions that are common to more than one public body;
- carrying out a government-wide mandate or initiative;
- verifying a person's eligibility for a program or measure; or
- planning, managing, assessing or controlling government resources, programs or services.
An order made under this section must set out the purposes for which the personal information is thus necessary. The Government may also determine in the order the public bodies that must collect personal information from or release personal information to the manager.
There is the usual requirement for an assessment of privacy-related factors9, a framework of rules published on the website and a comprehensive annual report to the Commission.10 The personal information gathered by the personal information manager may be released for reasons set out in the original order11 and preferably in a form which does not identify individuals.12
What could this initiative mean?
There has been very little comment on this part of Bill 64, which ostensibly applies only to the public sector. It is not in the part of the Bill which was sent to committee.13
However, it could drastically change the administration of personal information within the vast Quebec network of public bodies. Its possible use is to simplify the transfer of personal information among government bodies without needing the permission of the Commission. This would facilitate the use of data analytics within the government for the determination of policy choices and eligibility for benefits. It would also pool data more centrally for research purposes.
For the private sector, this might lead to greater internal efficiencies within the government, thus facilitating transactions with the government as partner and client. It might make market research into the Quebec market more accurate. It could be used, on a deidentified basis, as source of data for artificial intelligence initiatives.
Whatever its eventual use, it is a welcome sign that the Quebec government realizes that it is time to adopt, with appropriate safeguards, current data management techniques in order to fit into the technology and data driven innovation economy.
1 OECD (2020), OECD Digital Economy Outlook 2020, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/bb167041-en
7 Bill 64, article. 27, creating new articles 70.3 to 70.7 in the Access to Information Act
8 Bill 64, article 70.3
9 Article 70.4
10 Article 70.7
11 Article 70.5
12 Article 70.6
13 Ss 92 and following which deal mostly with the private sector
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