The Interim Access to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault released a new report yesterday on government compliance with the Access to Information Act. The report concludes that the right to obtain federal documents is at risk of being "totally obliterated." For readers of this blog, three departments figure most prominently in the ATI system: Industry Canada, Canadian Heritage, and Foreign Affairs.
Industry Canada fared pretty well, scoring a respectable "B", with the Commissioner noting that it faced a 93 percent increase in requests. Far more problematic were Foreign Affairs and Canadian Heritage. Foreign Affairs, which has primary responsibility for ACTA, was so bad it did not even receive an "F". The department takes longer than any other in the government and while it hired new staff to handle a massive backlog, those staff were let go after one year, meaning that things will get worse before they get better.
Canadian Heritage, which regularly receives requests on copyright and cultural policy, received an "F" with very troubling analysis. For example, the report states:
Despite the fact that access to information is a statutory requirement, access to information officials at Canadian Heritage reported during the interview for this report card that the function is given considerably less priority than the institution’s mandate-related programs.
The review process involves multiple layers and delays, with Minister James Moore's office receiving a copy of each disclosure package. The departmental response suggests that things may change, but the department – which once was fairly quick and responsivee – is clearly now understaffed and the concerns about a secretive approach apparently well justified.
Not too surprising
IC had a nearly doubled load of requests…
DFAIT had to hire extra people to handle the load of requests. Lets say they hired a CR-1 for the job (annual rate of pay, 2009, $30983, benefits, etc not included. Source Treasury Board website). At $5 per request, that person had to handle 6197 requests just for them to break even on the salary (and those requests would cover up to 30,985 hours of work).
Now, let’s add into the mixture the issues surrounding the political sensitivity of the work of some departments, which increases the amount of time that people in the PMO start to look at it, and I don’t wonder why the ratings are so low in some government departments. I also wonder if there are some that aren’t abusing the ATIP legislation.
If the cost is too high
If the cost of complying to Access To Information is so high, one would think that a simple solution would be to MAKE INFORMATION MORE AVAILABLE IN THE FIRST PLACE.
“Political sensitivity” is a straw man argument for an office such as the Minister of Heritage. We’re not talking about national defence, here: we’re talking about our culture and heritage. WE own it; the Minister does not.
There Is No Excuse
I agree with Kris Joseph… there is no reason for things to be so bad, and in fact wouldn’t making this information openly available online be more cost effective?
Especially if, as Anon-K says, it is too expensive to have human beings physically go through the requests.
Since Canadians are supposed to have “the right to obtain federal documents”, it should not have “less priority than the institution’s mandate-related programs”.
Of course all of this pre-supposes that the current government actually wants to allow Canadians access to information.
There are a couple of ways to deal with it.
The first would be to charge what the enabling legislation allows: $25 per request, not $5. This still gives the right to 5 hours of work (and still below the minimum wage). Or even a complete cost recovery mechanism.
Making the information available online is not the answer either. The web servers that need to be purchased, the networking to connect them to the world, the people to run them, the cost of scanning and OCR’ing print documents for historical searches, etc. Nothing is free. Of course, this all assumes that you have access to high speed internet. In many parts of this country, there is no such thing; dialup is the norm. So you can’t get rid of the existing system either. Of course, since the people doing this online get it for free, then the folks going through the existing system could rightly argue that they should pay nothing…
Kris: by political sensitivity I mean something that is potentially embarrassing for the government of the day, even if it predated their mandate. At this point you start to get PMO, etc, interfering in the production of the information.
@Laurel: Canadians, in fact, have only a limited right to obtain federal documents. There are a number of documents which may be exempted from being provided; documents which are classified (covered under the Official Secrets Act), documents which are produced by third parties (the permission of the originator is required), documents which contain controlled information (such as ITAR covered documents, they are not classified but require US State Department and DoD concurrence) to name a few. In fact, the act only provides this limited right to Canadian citizens and permanent residents. The Governor in Council may extend to others (http://laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/A-1/page-3.html#anchorbo-ga:s_4)
Ministry Mindfug or more Dragon’s Breath from the PMO?
While, as a Canadian citizen who both expects and rightfully demands that the activities, agendas and tax-funded costs of publicly mandated ministries be both transparent and readily available for scrutiny… I find it tearfully laughable if not Kafkaesque to expect our New Rome Regime in Ottawa to comply with laws and regulations they not only overtly hold in contempt… but have repeatedly subverted to their strategic ends behind the moat of privelaged secrecy.