Information commissioner pleads poverty, Tory MPs say raise fees

The debate over Access to Info fees:

But Legault said charging fees is contrary to the governments touted open government policy, which calls for free access to government information, such as the 200,000 data sets it has now posted online.

She also said it often costs the government more to process fees than they are worth, and that any two-tier or three-tier fee system would simply add complications to the system. It would also require public servants to inquire about the motivation of requesters and the use to which they would put the information, both anathema to modern freedom of information principles.

Conservative MP Joan Crockatt asked Legault to be more open-minded about how fees might help solve the budget crunch. “The solution is in plain sight,” she said, referring to higher fees. “You have a garden growing outside your window.… You can look at cuts or grow your pie.”

Money from access to information fees currently goes into general revenues, not to the information commissioners office, and there is no fee charged to file a complaint with Legault’s office. She recently reported to Parliament that she no longer has any room to manoeuvre in her budget, and that a simple computer-server failure could halt operations for lack of funds to replace it.

I do not have a problem with a doubling of fees and indexing them to inflation (i.e., from $5 to $10).

But given that fees go into general revenues, not the Information Commissioner, this would have to be matched with an increase in her budget.

With hopefully more fulsome government compliance …

Information commissioner pleads poverty, Tory MPs say raise fees – Politics – CBC News.

What open government hides | Geist

Michael Geist on the contradiction between the ‘Open Government’ initiative and the its inaction on ATIP compliance and reform and aversion to serious consultations:

There is much to like about Canada’s open government efforts, which have centred on three pillars: open data, open information, and open dialogue. Given the promise of “greater transparency and accountability, increased citizen engagement, and driving innovation and economic opportunity,” few would criticize the aspirational goals of Canada’s open government efforts. Yet scratch the below the surface of new open data sets and public consultations and it becomes apparent that there is much that open government hides.

The federal efforts around open data have shown significant progress in recent years. What started as a few pilot projects with relatively obscure data has grown dramatically with over 200,000 government data sets now openly available for use without the need for payment or permission. Moreover, the government has addressed concerns with its open government licence, removing some of the initial restrictions that unnecessarily hamstrung early efforts.

However, the enthusiasm for open data has not been matched with reforms to the access to information system. Despite government claims of openness and transparency, all government data is not equal. There is a significant difference between posting mapping data and making available internal information on policy decisions that should be released under access to information rules.

Indeed, while the government has invested in making open data sets available, it has failed to provide the necessary resources to the access to information system. The information commissioner of Canada has warned that inadequate financing has made it virtually impossible to meet demand and respond to complaints. Regular users of the access to information system invariably encounter long delays, aggressive use of exceptions to redact important information, significant costs, and inconsistent implementation of technology to provide more efficient and cost-effective service.

In short, the access to information system is broken. An open government plan that only addresses the information that government wants to make available, rather than all of the information to which the public is entitled, is not an open plan.

What open government hides | hilltimes.com.

Information watchdog says cash crunch endangers Canadians access rights

All too true. My experience with CIC ATIP confirms the delays and obfuscation:

“This growth in workload occurs in the context of significant financial restraint measures that have had a large impact on my budget,” Legault says in the report.

“With the incoming complaints volume showing no sign of abating, and with no financial flexibility, it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to keep ahead of demand and respond to complainants in as timely a manner as possible.”

It means a gap of about six months between the time a complaint about lack of access to records is received and the time it is assigned to an investigator.

The commissioners budget must absorb salary increases next year, leaving her concerned “we have been stretched to the limit.”

“It is my responsibility to alert the government and Parliament to the risks that the organization is facing,” Legault adds in the report.

“Without additional funding, I will no longer be able to carry out my mandate responsibly and ensure full respect of Canadians rights of access to information. As such, I intend to seek the support of the Treasury Board to obtain the necessary financing.”

Information watchdog says cash crunch endangers Canadians access rights – Politics – CBC News.

Globe editorial in favour of more resources and better compliance with ATIP:

Response times have dropped disastrously as a consequence. Ms. Legault, in going public this week about the impact of the cutbacks, said the wait time between the filing of a complaint and the assigning of an investigator has reached six months. Her next move will be to make a formal request to the Treasury Board for more money. Treasury Board President Tony Clement has had no comment, so far.

Mr. Clement should give the Information Commissioner the resources she needs. Since taking power, the Harper government has focused on putting more information online and on launching its Open Government web portal. But those efforts, however worthwhile, will mean little if the government simultaneously makes it harder for Canadians to get information that has been classified or held back for political reasons – arguably the most important information of all in a free society. The Conservatives knew this in 2006; why don’t they know it now?

 Harper government cutbacks hurting access to info 

Open government plan slams door on Access to Information Act reform – Politics – CBC News

Not a surprise.

But a good place to start would be with full and timely implementation, both in law and spirit, of the current Act:

The plan disappointed Duff Conacher, a board member of Democracy Watch, whose organization encouraged about 2,000 people to submit letters to Clements department advocating an overhaul of the law.

The group says the acts built-in exemptions — coupled with Legault’s inability to force departments to comply with the law — leave important files under wraps.

“The loopholes allow government to hide the information that shows corrupt, wasteful, abusive actions,” Conacher said.

“The Conservatives have ignored the call from most groups involved in this issue across the country for a stronger Access to Information Act and an information commissioner with enforcement powers.”

The NDP and Liberals have put forward private members bills to update the access law, but the legislative efforts havent been embraced by the Conservatives.

The government is “doing absolutely nothing” to modernize the act, said NDP digital issues critic Charmaine Borg, calling the lack of action “very problematic” and not “a road to real openness.”

Clement said the government is concentrating on making progress on the existing access law.

“The structure of the act, I think, is basically a good structure.”

Open government plan slams door on Access to Information Act reform – Politics – CBC News.

Among the Harper governments list of secrets: Soldiers on Viagra

Not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the Accountability Act:

There were 61 complaints last year to Suzanne Legault, the country’s information commissioner, about the cabinet confidence clause, almost twice the number in 2012. Figures from the commissioner’s office show it used the exclusion 2,117 times in 2012-13, a 20 per cent increase over the year before.

More recent data won’t be available until end of 2014, Legault told The Canadian Press in an interview.

She is concerned, however, about how wide-ranging the definition of a cabinet secret has become, especially since once the exclusion is declared, not even she can see the documents in question.

“When you look at the scope of the exclusion, it is extremely broad,” Legault said.

“It’s very, very broad. It basically catches anything that mentions a record that’s a cabinet confidence. In my view, the actual scope of this does not respect fundamental tenets of freedom of information.”

Media outlets aren’t the only ones for whom the flow of information in Ottawa has slowed to a trickle. Watchdog agencies like the auditor general, the military ombudsman and the parliamentary budget officer are also complaining.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson said last spring that his attempts to audit the long-term health of public pension plans had been stymied by bureaucrats at Finance and Treasury Board.

Ferguson said he was “surprised” at the scope of information officials refused to disclose.

Kevin Page, who took the Harper government to federal court when he was parliamentary budget officer, said the law needs a major overhaul.

“Under my time as the budget officer we were told on numerous occasions — from crime bills to elements of the government’s economic forecast to departmental spending restraint plans post budget 2012 — that Parliament and the PBO could not get access to information because it was a cabinet confidence,” Page said.

“The stakes were high. The government was asking Parliament to vote on bills without relevant financial information and were hiding behind the veil of cabinet confidence. This undermined accountability for Parliament and the accountability of the public service.”

Among the Harper governments list of secrets: Soldiers on Viagra.

Editorial: Open up the government

Yet more commentary on the government’s failure to comply with its obligations under the Access to Information Act, this time by the Ottawa Citizen.

The government should listen to Legault because there is nothing to fear from openness. Access to information is fundamental to our system of government, and a key tool of citizen engagement. A Conservative government that rode accountability to office should not stand in the way. It should be a champion of openness.

Editorial: Open up the government.

Access to information at ‘serious risk,’ watchdog warns – Politics – CBC News

More on just how broken our access to information system is. While the basic issue of not enough resources to process requests predates the current government, the delays and inability to respond to requests has gotten worse under the current government. Given that one of the reasons they were elected in the first place was for  accountability, ironic that one of the cornerstones of accountability, transparency, has been undermined.

Access to information at ‘serious risk,’ watchdog warns – Politics – CBC News.

I have still not received any documents from my current ATIP request, submitted 24 April. My last communication with ATIP dates from 12 August, saying still waiting for feedback from CIC and other departments.

Canada’s info czar warns against federal government’s new obstructive tactics – The Globe and Mail

More on just how broken Canada’s Access to Information system is. So much for government accountability.

Canada’s info czar warns against federal government’s new obstructive tactics – The Globe and Mail.

The access-to-information system is busting: information czar – National | Globalnews.ca

A systemic issue for the government, one that undermines government accountability to citizens.

My own experience under the Access to Information Act only confirms that the system is broken and unable to meet its statutory obligations. Will post a log shortly on the delays, obfuscation and excuses used in not fulfilling a legitimate ATIP request.

Not a high point for the government.

The access-to-information system is busting: information czar – National | Globalnews.ca.

Release of government documents backlogged

My own experience with ATIP reveals a similar lack of compliance with the statutory requirements of the Act. Not a good example of government accountability or transparency.

Release of government documents backlogged.