Briefing notes

Kirsten Smith My Blog Leave a Comment

Government officials write a lot of briefing notes to their ministers and deputy ministers. For journalists they are a gold mine of information and potential story ideas. For industry they are a gold mine of intelligence. For historians, they are a gold mine… get the idea.

Just a random sample of recent stories.

This also means media and industry spend a lot of money in $5 increments ordering lists of briefing notes for 50+ departments and agencies using the Access to Information Act. Then, once you have the list you order the notes of interest, spending another $5. Most departments let you bundle three or four notes per request.

Sample of the list of briefing notes from 2016 for Innovation Science and Economic Development Canada.

As part of the Access to Information Act reforms tabled in June, the federal government has proposed proactive disclosure of these lists of briefing notes. (Which doesn’t really have anything to do with making the current Act any better, but I digress) This is good news for ‘open and transparent’ government but it’s also going to be a huge time saver for the overworked Access to Information and Privacy units within departments. I submit regular requests for briefing notes on behalf of clients. Innovation Science and Economic Development, for example, often writes back and explain how they will piggy back my request on ones already existing in their system. It’s alot of work.

C-58, the much maligned Access reform bill has barely begun its’ legislative journey, so I was surprised to find lists of briefing notes from Finance Canada and the Treasury Board already online. The same day I stumbled across those the May briefing notes for the Veterans Affairs Minister showed up in one of my Google Alerts. I checked the “Transparency” and “Open Data” sections of a few other departments but found nothing. So are they public or not?? Time to call the Treasury Board.

A media spokesperson for Treasury Board says any departments (like his) that are currently proactively publishing lists of briefing notes are doing so of their own volition.  TB has been releasing titles of briefing notes for months as a time saving device by the ATIP unit, he confirmed. They get so many requests for the lists it just made sense to publish them. That’s great says I but if you don’t have a consistent policy for the format and the location of the release, what good is it. Duly noted, he responded. Access coordinators from the departments all talk and share best practices so the format of release of these lists and where they will be released is probably part of that discussion, he added.

Hopefully lists of briefing notes for all departments (looking at you Privy Council Office)

will go into this Government Wide Reporting site run by the Treasury Board. Including them in Proactive Disclosure seems like a logical place. Here’s a sample of what information is already published there.


All this to say that using briefing notes for your research is still a complicated process, but one I can help with. If you want to request government briefing notes for your business, give me a call.

Please note: the featured image for this post is from the Public Value Unit of the CBC. Check out the original page here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *