Clark: How your right to know is getting stymied by the Denial Machine

Good commentary on the broke ATIP system and how this impacts service to the public, particularly with respect to immigration (IRCC does a good job in publishing most of its operational data on the government-wide open data site):

Thirty-nine years ago, after a wave of post-Watergate epiphanies about government secrecy, the Canadian government passed the first federal Access to Information Act. Ever since then it is has been building a denial machine.

It would be easy to pin the blame on secretive politicians trying to obstruct the public’s ability to know what is going on inside government, because they have done that. Prime ministers including Justin Trudeau and his predecessor, Stephen Harper, have broken promises to open government.

But it’s not just that. There is bureaucratic aversion to openness, and a default assumption that making the public’s business public would be tricky. Complicated. Impractical.

And there is another problem: The government’s failure to provide information about simple things is gumming up the system.

Take a look at the recent The Globe and Mail story in which Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard is quoted telling a House of Commons committee that every department in government is failing to keep up with Access to Information requests. Should there be reforms? Ms. Maynard told the committee, in a phrase that should leave us all gobsmacked, that “respecting the law as it currently exists would represent an important first step.”

The government’s Access to Information system, which cost $90-milion in 2021, is garnering 10,000 complaints a year, the story noted. And it included a statistic that offers a clue to one big chunk of the problem: Access to Information requests to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada have increased so much they now outnumber requests to all other departments.

Why? Because IRCC is so bad at providing basic routine info that people are resorting to freedom-of-information requests.

The Access to Information law is supposed to allow people to pay a small fee to request federal government records or, at least, records that aren’t covered by the extensive legal exceptions.

The system for implementing the Act – the $90-million machine – is based on finding the requested documents, but heavily focused on applying exceptions and blacking stuff out. Ask for a copy of a government contract and often the prices of items will be redacted, even though the Federal Court of Canada has ruled such information should be released. One huge problem is delays, sometimes of years. With information, access delayed is often access denied.

That’s why the volume of requests to the Immigration department is instructive. Many come from people asking for info on their applications, said Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland. He publishes an immigration-policy newsletter, Lexbase, which is based heavily on access-to-information releases.

IRCC has for decades been unable or unwilling to provide updates to applicants, so Members of Parliament are often deluged with requests for help. Increasingly, their offices file access requests.

If you’re a regular internet shopper, you might recognize those requests as the immigration version of a common customer-service question: “Where’s my stuff?” Companies such as Amazon have online tracking systems that give customers simple answers: whether the order has been received, or shipped, and so on. If they didn’t, they’d be deluged with inquiries. But IRCC doesn’t do that.

Now the government’s failure to provide basic information is gumming up the system that is supposed to allow Canadians to pierce the veil of secrecy.

More broadly, Ottawa’s failure to make openness routine – even though doing so is easy in the digital age – makes getting access to out-of-the-ordinary information slower, and harder.

Requesters sometimes ask for copies of agreements for “grants and contributions” that set out government funding for organizations and groups. These should be automatically published on a website. So should all contracts except in rare exceptions. And so on.

But politicians don’t much care for that sort of transparency. Why let more people see things that might raise embarrassing questions? When the system is clogged up, as it is now, they don’t have to care. There’s no real penalty for failing to respect the Access to Information law.

If the government spent twice the money on a functioning Access to Information system, it would be well worth it. Instead, over decades, Ottawa has built – by design and by accident – a system that is effectively a machine to deny and delay.

Source: How your right to know is getting stymied by the Denial Machine

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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