The Gatekeepers: Where ATIP offices fell short during the pandemic

Of note. Would be a lot easier in some ways for the default to post more publicly on open Canada but changing government culture is difficult (which I remember all too well from my time within government and then my time outside filing ATIPs).

Some of the Information Commissioner’s recommendations are practical and should be doable:

Four months into the pandemic, anyone exercising their right to query the federal government would have received the following message from one of its largest departments, Public Services and Procurement Canada:

Due to the current and evolving COVID-19 pandemic, PSPC’s network is limited to essential and critical services such as pay, pension and procurement. While we are committed to respecting your right of access and are actively looking for solutions to maintain operations, we have little to no capacity at this time. Consequently, the Access to Information and Privacy Office has decided to put all access and privacy requests on hold until the situation returns to normal.

PSPC was hardly unique. When the federal government sent the vast majority of its 300,000 employees to work from home 17 months ago, the decrepit state of its electronic backbone was suddenly exposed, leaving more than 1,000 ATIP specialists in particular to grapple with some unsettling realities.

Most were unable to link securely from home to their offices. Even if the links had been in place, it often wouldn’t have mattered. In nine of the largest departments and agencies, more than one-quarter of the requests completed the previous year were in paper format. At the RCMP, the ratio was more than half.

Laying hands on those documents demands a physical presence. And the offices were mostly empty.

“The right of access, a quasi-constitutional right, cannot be suspended because of the pandemic,” Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard declared earlier this year.

As Maynard elaborated in an interview with this newspaper, she was not implying that ATIP workers should have been forced back to the office to do their duties. Her point was that the government had failed to provide the necessary tools. “Sadly, the pandemic opened our eyes to the issues,” she said. “We have a system that’s still archaic.”

Maynard also noted a disturbing tendency within government generally to give access requests lower priority — not necessarily within the ATIP units, but among employees elsewhere in government who locate and forward the necessary documents.

“It is very difficult to find people who want to work in access to information,” Maynard said before a House of Commons committee.

“You’re dealing with requesters who are eager to get the information, but you’re also dealing with a department that doesn’t want to respond, doesn’t have time to respond or has other more important things to do. It’s not an easy job.”

Eventually departments resumed ATIP operations last year, at least fitfully. But the end result for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2021, wasn’t pretty.

A Postmedia survey of 13 of the largest departments and agencies revealed 23 per cent fewer requests were closed during fiscal 2021 compared to the previous year, ranging from a drop of nearly 60 per cent for Global Affairs to just five per cent for Employment.

The number of requests also slipped, albeit a comparatively modest seven per cent overall. The range was even wider, however: from a decline of 48 per cent at Global Affairs to an increase of 62 per cent at the department of Innovation. There was also increased activity at PSPC and the Privy Council Office, two organizations that, like Innovation, were heavily involved in the government’s COVID-19 response. Year over year declines were slight at Employment and Canada Revenue Agency for the same reason.

(This discussion excludes the outsized influence of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which on its own accounted for three-quarters of access requests last year across government and belongs in a separate category. The vast majority of its access activity involves requests for updates on the progress of immigration or refugee applications. The department received nearly 108,000 access requests last year, down eight per cent, and completed nearly 105,000, down six per cent.)

With a few exceptions, the net result of the access activity within the other large government organizations was an increase in backlogs — dramatically so in the case of Innovation, the Privy Council Office, Public Services & Procurement Canada and Library & Archives. Collectively, the group of 13 received 26,400 access requests in fiscal 2021 and processed just 21,100. As a result, the backlog jumped 40 per cent.

Hypothetically, it would take the group of 12 more than seven months to clear their backlog, assuming processing took place at the pre-pandemic pace and no further requests come in.

Which is to say there is a big problem here.

Global Affairs blamed its egregious performance in matters of access on a classified server that can be used only by employees in the office. The department is developing an “IT infrastructure that will allow remote work on non-classified documents.”

Some departments — the RCMP, Defence and Immigration — have already been investigated by Maynard following complaints about lengthy delays and a lack of disclosure.

The RCMP acknowledges ongoing difficulties related to “insufficient resources” and “antiquated software systems” — compounded by the pandemic.

The number of access requests received by the RCMP in fiscal 2021 surged 18 per cent to 5,300-plus, while the police agency closed just 3,430 — nearly one-third fewer than the year before. This left the RCMP with a backlog representing a year’s worth of pre-pandemic activity.

“The RCMP recognizes that it must modernize its ATIP program,” the agency said in response to queries by this newspaper, “and has developed an ambitious plan and strategy to achieve this.”

Even agencies that have invested heavily in information technology over the years are re-visiting their methods.

Canada Revenue Agency, one of three government organizations (along with Employment and CSIS) that managed to trim the number of outstanding access requests during fiscal 2021, was prompted into action by its early experience during the pandemic.

While much of the agency’s work is already done electronically, its massive computer network wasn’t set up to handle having a majority of its 45,000 employees work from home. Indeed, during the spring of 2020, the only employees allowed to sign on to the network were those performing “critical services” for Canadians, such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit.

Processing access requests was not among those services considered essential, even though many of the requests were related to CERB and other COVID-19 response programs developed by the agency.

When CRA resumed answering access requests last summer, it committed to “a full-scale business transformation” aimed at expediting matters. The agency was vague on the details, but said this would involve changes to the CRA’s “processes, organizational structure and the use of technology.”

Translated into plain language, the agency is figuring out how to create and store documents so they are easier to retrieve. The question of exactly what should be disclosed is a more complicated one, but Maynard has some views on that as well.

The Information Commissioner reckons one of the best ways to cull large backlogs is for departments and agencies to automatically disclose information that is the focus of multiple requests. Training employees in the art of creating documents and records that are more easily searched is another way.

Nevertheless, Maynard recognizes that people seeking information from their government are also butting heads against an entrenched, longstanding culture of secrecy. That is why she is lobbying for changes to the access legislation that would remove some of the enormous discretion now exercised by those in control of the information.

“Where people have a discretionary exclusionary power, they will rarely decide to disclose the information,” she told MPs.

“Rather, they will attempt to redact the information for fear that it may be misinterpreted or cause embarrassment.”

That’s a longer-term war. In the meantime, fixing the ATIP regime’s technical shortcomings in the wake of COVID-19 will be challenge enough.

Source: The Gatekeepers: Where ATIP offices fell short during the pandemic

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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