Below is an article I wrote about Freedom of Information and Access to Information requests for an assignment on government records. I hope you enjoy.
Over the last fiscal year, 3,878 complaints flooded the Canadian Office of the Information Commissioner claiming that information they thought should be publicly available was not being released or that their requests were being delayed due to administrative obstruction.
Of these complaints, about 2,089 were not completed and were carried over to the following year’s workload.
The number of complaints the information commissioner’s office deals with has increased by about 30 per cent over the last year. Along with this workload growth, the office has lost the equivalent of 24 full-time staff. All of these factors have begun to put a strain on the office, making it difficult to close complaints in a timely manner.
According to the office’s 2013-14 annual report, there is now a gap of nearly six months between when the commissioner registers a refusal complaint and when she assigns them to an investigator.
In order to address these issues, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault will table a list of recommendations in March calling for a comprehensive review of the Access to Information Act. Legault’s office has not provided any details about what will be included in the proposal; however, Tom Henheffer, the executive director of Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression, said that enforcement would be among the list of recommendations
Henheffer consulted with Legault a few weeks ago about the proposal, and said that it will give the Commissioner more power to compel government departments to release documents.
“If she has the power to enforce the act, than instantly things will change,” he said.
Ken Rubin, an Ottawa-based investigative researcher and information activist, says that delays are now engrained into the government regime.
“If the top doesn’t say get your stuff together, why should anyone,” he said. “This is a problem. It’s an attitude.”
Of the 69,377 Access to Information requests filed to the federal government over the last fiscal year, over 11 thousand were uncompleted and carried on to the following year. Many of these requests will result in complaints if not addressed in 30 days.
Transport Canada and Health Canada are both listed on the commissioner’s website as having filed over 700 extension notices in the past year. Throughout 2013-14, Transport Canada filed 713 extension notices. Their average time to complete a request was 126 days.
Twenty-two per cent of Access to Information requests filed to Health Canada in 2013-14 took longer than 120 days to complete. They filed 703 extension notices. National Defence was a close third with 698 extension notices filed within the last fiscal year.
Laverne Jacobs, an associate professor at Windsor University whose research looks at the effectiveness of the Access to Information process, says that funding isn’t the only solution.
“(The Office of the Information Commissioner) spent a lot of time going through doing these investigations, but they haven’t gone around to departments explaining how to avoid these circumstances,” said Jacobs. “This could be seminars, or it could be working on systemic issues with particular departments.”
Education, Jacobs says, would decrease the number of complaints the commissioner has to deal with.
According to Natalie Hall, media relations within the Office of the Information Commissioner, education is not part of the Commissioner’s mandate.
Back in December, Legault appeared in front of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics claiming that she will be unable to complete her mandate without an increase in funds and resources.
“The situation will simply get worse, since both the number of complaints and the financial pressures will continue to grow,” Legault said in her statement. “Unless my budget is increased, I have only one option going into the next fiscal year to keep within my appropriations: to cut the program.”
This isn’t a new concern. According to Departmental Reviews, reducing the number of complaints and allocating enough resources to employee a “full contingent of investigators” has been a priority since 2006.
Annual Reports dating back to 2006 show an increase in complaints and a stagnant budget; however in 2008-09, the information commissioner’s office was able to close 100 per cent of complaints with a budget of $10 million. Similarly to 2013-14, there were 2,018 new complaints filed.
The budget for 2013-14 was also about $10 million.
Spending Estimates for the 2014-15 fiscal year show that the $3.3 million being lost from Legault’s budget was originally allocated towards expenses unrelated to complaint investigations. About $2.8 million of that budget was a one-time loan to help relocate the office.
An extra $100,000 was allocated towards salaries due to a recently signed collective agreement.
The treasury board would not comment on whether or not it plans on increasing the information commissioner’s budget, saying only that “the Government of Canada shares the commissioner’s commitment to upholding and strengthening the democratic principles of openness and transparency.”
Legault was unavailable at the time of publication.