Pandemic pretext: More delays in long-awaited access to information answers

ATIP is far too often late and, as the examples below indicate, sometimes very late, in responding, with COVID-19 providing further excuses for delay:

Federal departments that have stalled access to information requests for three years or more are now citing the pandemic as the reason for further delays.

Emails are going out to people who make access to information requests, notifying them the requests are now “on hold.”

“We cannot send consultations out because most third parties, other government departments (municipal, provincial, territorial and federal) are closed or reduced to minimum employee capacity,” the department now says.

“So until we are given the green light to start processing consultations again, we won’t be able to process any of the records for your request. But in the meantime, we would like to know if you still wish to proceed with your request or if you wish to abandon.”

Rubin says Health Canada owes him answers to about a dozen requests dating back for years — one from 2014 about adverse pharmaceutical reactions including some deaths, one on drug licensing from 2015, others from 2016 and 2017. They now warn him of “possible delays in treating your request,” due to the pandemic.

“Openness, transparency and accountability are guiding principles of the Government of Canada. However, our ability to respond to requests within the timelines mandated by the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act may be affected” by the pandemic, the department says.

The Finance Department wrote him using the the exact same words.

National Defence says it has reduced staff in the access office and hasn’t enough secure lines to handle his requests remotely. They asked for Rubin’s consent to put the request on hold. Rubin said no.

“You have to push back,” he said. “A lot of people don’t consider this a human right. But it’s not just administrative.”

Public Service and Procurement Canada (PSPC) has several aging Rubin files, and he hadn’t heard about them either, until this month’s message that “PSPC’s network is currently 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.”

One department told him: “despite all our efforts, we will not be able to respond to your ATIP request within the legislated timelines.” The legislated timeline ended years ago.

“Our access to information legislation is so flawed that it’s possible for access to information requests to be delayed and delayed and delayed, which turns the whole purpose of the legislation into a joke,” said James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University.

“The fact that people who haven’t heard for a year or two years are now getting a notice that it’s been delayed because of COVID reveals how badly flawed” it is.

“I like Ken’s remark that oh, it’s good to hear from you.”

He also noted that the lockdown shows the unevenness of government services, as some are cut off from paper documents while others shift to digital documents.

This newspaper asked Environment Canada more than a year ago for internal emails involved in sending out a single news release on climate change. This month, after our request passed its first anniversary, we asked how long it would take.
The answer: They were just about to send us the information, and then the lockdown hit.
The department promises a speedy answer once its office reopens.

Source: Pandemic pretext: More delays in long-awaited access to information answers

Access-to-information systems across Canada slowed by COVID-19

ATIP is not the most responsive at the best of times and my experience suggests a further slowing down. Some of the delays may be legitimate given some of the requested records may be hard to access when working remotely:

An international human rights organization is calling on all levels of government in Canada to continue answering access to information requests — and prioritize ones that relate to government accountability.

As governments across the country move to offer essential services only due to COVID-19, some are warning of delays in processing access to information requests, while others have stopped accepting new requests entirely.

It means the public has one less tool to understand how those in power are making decisions during a public health crisis.

“We’ve got, on the one hand, this incredible need for accountability and on the other hand, the institutions of accountability are operating well below their normal levels,” Toby Mendel, executive director of the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, said in an interview.”So, it’s a cocktail for lack of accountability and at this time, the importance of access to information is much, much greater than ever.”

The Access to Information Act allows applicants who pay $5 to ask for documents ranging from expense reports to briefing papers from government bodies in Canada.

‘Canadians will expect a comprehensive picture’

Last week, the federal information commissioner urged federal agencies and departments to “take all reasonable measures to limit the impact on individuals’ right to access.”

She followed it up with a statement on Thursday, reminding public bodies about their obligation to document decisions and actions, even with many people working from home.

“When the time comes, and it will, for a full accounting of the measures taken and the vast financial resources committed by the government during this emergency, Canadians will expect a comprehensive picture of the data, deliberations and policy decisions that determined the government’s overall response to COVID-19,” commissioner Caroline Maynard wrote in the statement.

But some institutions in the already-clogged federal system are halting access to information requests indefinitely.

“The Access to Information and Privacy Office has decided to put all access and privacy requests on hold until the situation returns to normal,” Public Services and Procurement Canada wrote in an email to an applicant last week.

The email didn’t say what part of the legislation allows it to put requests on hold indefinitely or how it would define “normal.”

A spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Canada didn’t answer those questions, but said it “is prioritizing support for the government’s response efforts, as well as critical services, including administering pay and pensions, and maintaining building safety as part of its service continuity.”

Toronto not accepting new requests

The access to information system is not just slowing down at the federal level.

CBC News surveyed five cities — Toronto, Ottawa, Halifax, Vancouver and Calgary — and found their approaches to access to information during COVID-19 vary.

Calgary, Ottawa and Vancouver say they are continuing to answer requests as usual during the pandemic while trying to minimize delays.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, says it has “temporarily suspended the intake of any new [freedom of information] requests” so staff can “prioritize COVID-19 response activities.”

“It is not currently feasible to deploy staff resources to conduct the searches necessary to locate records in order to respond to new requests,” City of Toronto spokesperson Beth Waldman wrote in an email.

Waldman said transparency and right to information are still a priority, citing the city’s press briefings and “other communications to the public” during the pandemic. She didn’t specify when the city will start accepting new requests again.

After two weeks of mass closures and aggressive physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, public health experts watch closely to see if Canada is taking steps towards flattening the curve. 3:08

Earlier this week, the Halifax Regional Municipality’s website said it wasn’t accepting new requests for information or routine disclosure requests, where people can request information that’s already been released.

After CBC News asked why that was the case, the website was changed to say the municipality would accept requests, but applicants should expect delays “as municipal staff are working remotely and will not be in a position to search for records responsive to the request.”Provinces are also handling the situation differently.

The New Brunswick Ombud’s Office has granted an extension to public bodies, giving them until May 29 to complete active requests.

But in Newfoundland and Labrador, public bodies are getting indefinite extensions, according to a letter sent to an applicant in March.

“The extension is approved for the time until government returns to normal operations,” the letter says, adding that the extension was approved by the province’s access to information and privacy commissioner.

‘Scrutiny from outside makes things work better’

Mendel said public bodies have been too quick to say they can’t handle processing requests.

“It is not appropriate for bodies to simply say we’re not processing requests anymore,” Mendel said.”We have laws across the country. They set rules for the processing of requests and those rules must either be formally limited by a legal process or they must be obeyed.”

While he said it may be reasonable for public bodies to restrict employees from going into offices and looking for physical files, he believes public institutions should prioritize requests that deal with government accountability, including those from journalists and opposition politicians.

“Scrutiny from outside makes things work better,” said Mendel.

His organization has recently launched a tracker that examines how governments across the globe are handling access to information during a pandemic.

“In Brazil, for example, they sought to suspend the operation of the act and the Supreme Court said, ‘No that’s not legitimate, that is a key accountability institution,'” Mendel said.

“You can see that when the proper rule of law system is being applied to these measures, it doesn’t just allow governments to act as they might wish arbitrarily. ”

Crisis could push access to information to modernize

Organizations that already struggled to respond to access to information requests will likely make access to information “an even lower priority” during a pandemic, according to Jason Woywada, executive director of the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

“That does lead to concerns because those are the same institutions that likely require the highest degree of oversight to improve their processes and operations,” he said.

But it also could push the country’s access to information systems to modernize.

Woywada supports that, as long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t put privacy at risk.

Nova Scotia learned that the hard way in 2018, after it was forced to shut down its online freedom of information portal after a privacy breach.

More than 7,000 documents, including hundreds with highly personal information, were downloaded in March 2018, but the breach wouldn’t be detected until a month later.

“The key consideration there is making sure that security is maintained and making sure that the privacy is maintained for the information of the individuals that is being used online, that we aren’t seeing a sudden increase in data breaches,” Woywada said.

Source: Access-to-information systems across Canada slowed by COVID-19

Losing a war criminal in Canada’s access to information system

Telling account of ATIP failure by Michael Friscolanti – ATIP took longer to respond than locating a fugitive:

Nearly four years ago, Maclean’s tracked down a fugitive: Dragan Djuric, a suspected Serbian war criminal. At the time, his mug shot was one of dozens featured on an FBI-style “Wanted” list launched by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA)—a Stephen Harper-era initiative aimed at flushing out illegal immigrants who vanished before they could be deported.

A failed refugee claimant who supposedly disappeared in the early 2000s, Djuric’s trail had gone cold after the border agency said it exhausted every last lead in his file. Maclean’s managed to find him in a matter of a few weeks, thanks to some obvious clues left behind in his Federal Court records. Living in Slovenia—not somewhere in Canada, as Ottawa believed—Djuric was actually quite happy to talk to a reporter, anxious to prove he wasn’t hiding at all.

After the article was published, Maclean’s went looking for something else via the Access to Information Act: internal CBSA records discussing Djuric’s case. Only now, two and a half years after filing that ATIP request, has the agency handed over the documents.

Although the records contain some newsworthy revelations—including the fact that the Harper Conservatives quietly removed 15 other names from the Wanted list after the article appeared—the disclosure says a lot more about the dysfunctional state of Canada’s access to information system than it does about missing war criminals. Simply put, Maclean’s had a much easier time locating a fugitive than it did obtaining government documents about said fugitive.

“The access system is clearly broken,” says Fred Vallance-Jones, a journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, and project leader of an annual freedom-of-information audit. “If you don’t have the ability to get information reasonably promptly, then all we know about our government is what the government is willing to tell us in press releases and news conferences. And we all know that the government doesn’t always give the full picture.”

via Losing a war criminal in Canada’s access to information system – Macleans.ca

Canada’s access-to-information system has worsened under Trudeau government: report

Hopefully, this report will provoke some attention:

Canada’s access-to-information system has only gotten worse under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, and a new Liberal bill intended to fix the problems has “worrisome” elements, a new report has found.

A freedom-of-information audit from News Media Canada, a national association representing the Canadian news media industry, gives the federal government a failing grade for timely disclosure of information. It also said its performance in this year’s audit “was even worse than in the latter years of the former Stephen Harper government.”

“The results are not encouraging and show a system that seems as broken as ever,” said a report on the audit by journalist and professor Fred Vallance-Jones and Emily Kitagawa, a freelance journalist and social worker.

Nathan Cullen, the NDP democratic reform critic, called the findings “shameful.”

“It’s got to be a bad day for Liberals when Stephen Harper was more open to the Canadian public than they are,” he said.

The report came the same day the federal information watchdog said she is “generally very disappointed” with the Liberal bill that would revise the Access to Information Act, which is intended to let Canadians see federal files.

Information commissioner Suzanne Legault said on Tuesday she will outline her concerns about the planned changes in a special report to Parliament this week.

The act, which took effect in 1983, allows people who pay $5 to request everything from correspondence and studies to expense reports and meeting minutes.

Agencies must answer requests within 30 days or provide a good reason for taking more time.

Source: Canada’s access-to-information system has worsened under Trudeau government: report – The Globe and Mail

Government uses Access to Information Act as ‘shield’ against openness: czar – Politics – CBC New

Some things appear not to change although I recognize the complexities involved:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is failing to deliver on his promise of a government that’s open by default, the federal information czar says.

The law that’s intended to give Canadians access to government files is being used instead as a shield against transparency, information commissioner Suzanne Legault said in her annual report tabled Thursday.

Legault said her investigations reveal the Access to Information Act is failing to foster accountability and trust.

The act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Requests are supposed to be answered within 30 days and agencies must have legitimate reasons for taking longer.

However, the system has been widely criticized as slow, antiquated and riddled with loopholes that allow agencies to withhold information rather than release it.

A number of key institutions that possess valuable information for Canadians showed declines in performance, said Legault, an ombudsman for users of the law.

In terms of timeliness, the RCMP, the Canada Revenue Agency, the Correctional Service and Global Affairs received F grades, while National Defence and Health Canada were branded with the even more serious Red Alert status.

Legault’s report says she referred one case to the attorney general last month after uncovering apparent improper deletion of emails by an employee of Shared Services Canada.

Culture change needed on government openness1:21

The latest federal budget contained no funding for transparency measures and there has been no direction from the head of the public service on increasing transparency, Legault said.

Trudeau’s promises of making the government more open and accountable must be accompanied by action, she told a news conference. “I think he needs to do more. And I think he needs to make sure that the bureaucracy does more. It’s not enough to say it.”

The Liberal government recently acknowledged it is delaying planned reforms to the 34-year-old law due to the complexities of the task — changes Legault maintains are essential and long overdue.

The promised amendments include giving the information commissioner the power to order the release of government records and ensuring the access law applies to the offices of the prime minister, cabinet members and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

Action, not talk, needed

Treasury Board President Scott Brison said Thursday that reforms are coming, though he did not say exactly when. “We agree, actually, with the commissioner about the need to modernize the act.”

New Democrat MP Daniel Blaikie, who sat on a Commons committee that recommended a sweeping overhaul of the law, said Thursday it’s clear what needs to be done. “It’s just a real disappointment for people who took the government at its word in terms of openness and transparency and all the rest.”

Brison did take a first step last year, issuing a ministerial directive to enshrine the principle that federal agencies should be “open by default.”

Legault said the move, on its own, is not sufficient.

“If you want to truly change a whole culture in a very large bureaucracy, you’re going to have to make a concerted effort. There are going to have to be clear messages from the prime minister, the responsible ministers, the clerk of the Privy Council,” she said.

“Sadly, champions for transparency are absent.”

Source: Government uses Access to Information Act as ‘shield’ against openness: czar – Politics – CBC News

Government accused of hoarding Canadian history in ‘secret’ archives

Hard to know whether deliberate policy or, what I think may be more likely, lower priority and capacity constraints:

Some of Canada’s leading historians say the federal government is putting the country’s historical record at risk by hoarding piles of documents inside secret archives that together would make a stack taller than the CN Tower.

Historian Dennis Molinaro of Trent University discovered ministries and agencies are stockpiling millions of decades-old papers rather than handing them over to Library and Archives Canada for safekeeping and public access. He’s launched a petition to try to convince the government to set them free.

The Canadian Historical Association (CHA) has joined his campaign and is calling on the government to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary by overhauling the laws on access to government records.

“It’s very disturbing that there are caches of documents about which we know very little. We don’t even know the extent of this,” said CHA president Joan Sangster, a colleague of Molinaro’s at Trent in Peterborough, Ont., where she teaches labour and women’s history.

As part of his research, Molinaro has been asking government departments to hand over information about Canada’s Cold War domestic spy and surveillance programs run by the RCMP. Last fall, the federal government initially refused his access-to-information request for the papers (which were never transferred to the national archives) concerning a 65-year-old top secret RCMP wiretapping program dubbed Project Picnic.

One day after CBC News reported on Molinaro’s battle with the bureaucracy, officials notified him they would release the 1951 “secret order” that authorized the wiretapping program targeting suspected Soviet spies and other subversives, signed by Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent.

‘Secret or shadow archive’

Access-to-information officials have told Molinaro the Privy Council Office holds at least 1.6 million more pages from the era, many of which could concern Cold War counter-espionage programs. He’s also learned many more intelligence-related records dating back four, five and six decades are being held by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and the departments of Justice and Foreign Affairs.

He’s been told in email exchanges that there’s currently no public list to help him — or any other researcher — understand, let alone access, these mountains of papers kept inside closed government storerooms.

“The government seems to be, in essence, running some kind of secret or shadow archive,” Molinaro told CBC News.

Keeping millions of records from the national archives is “appalling,” he said.

“You’re hiding the historical record from the Canadian people.”

He says the problem extends far beyond his own research interest of domestic surveillance.

“Think of how many events from the Cold War … The Cuban Missile Crisis … RCMP counter-intelligence operations, foreign intelligence operations,” he said. “What else is there on other topics? On Indigenous affairs and relations? What else is in different government institutions on a variety of topics?

“We don’t know.”

CBC News asked various government departments to identify how much historical material they keep that’s more than 30 years old — and why.

The Privy Council Office (PCO) revealed it has “1,430 cubic feet” (40.5 cubic metres) of government records dating back many decades.

docsgraph

PCO says transfer of these cabinet documents, discussion papers and records to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is “time-consuming” and first requires wide consultation to ensure classified information isn’t released improperly.

The office says it’s looking at recommendations to declassify a large block of “legacy” information from 1939-1959, and considering transferring cabinet minutes and documents from the 1980s to LAC.

The CSE, Canada’s electronic spy agency, acknowledges it, too, is struggling to sort 128 linear metres of boxes of “legacy” records that are more than three decades old before handing them over to LAC.

The Foreign Affairs Department, Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP all declined to say how much historical material they continue to store.

Source: Government accused of hoarding Canadian history in ‘secret’ archives – Canada – CBC News

Ministry asks $30 per minute for data, despite Brison’s order to drop ATIP fees

As a reasonably heavy user of IRCC data, that released on Open Data as well as specific requests, I understand and appreciate both the cost recovery (takes time and resources) and public interest aspects (data helps inform discussion and debate).

But $30 per additional minute of search time? Hard to justify on cost recovery given it is only staff time that should be counted: $100 for the first 10 minutes and $30 per minute thereafter is $1,600 per hour!

The federal immigration ministry is asking up to $30 per minute to process a public request for immigration data, despite the Liberal government’s directive last year to waive extra fees for access to information requests and commitment to making government information open by default.

One advocate of government transparency said the $30-per-minute proposed charge thwarts the intent of Treasury Board President Scott Brison’s fee-waiving directive, and another said such fees could work as a “deterrent” to members of the public looking for government information.

The request related to information that factored into a change in the government’s visa policy that allowed the passage of Canada’s trade deal with Europe.

Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada officials initially declined to make public the rate at which visa applications from Bulgaria and Romania were refused, unless the requester—The Hill Times—agreed to pay $100 for a 10-minute search of the department’s records, plus $30 for each additional minute it would take IRCC employees to find the data.

Mr. Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.) instructed all government entities last year to waive fees associated with access to information requests—used by businesses, media, and the general public to obtain government information—beyond an initial $5 filing fee, as part of the government’s transparency platform.

The Hill Times used the Access to Information Act to request the most recent three-year visa refusal rate for Romania, Bulgaria, and Mexico, countries for which the Liberal government has scrapped or has pledged to scrap visa requirements since it came to power in 2015. The government has been criticized, including by the opposition Conservatives, for deciding to drop those requirements to grease the wheels of international relations, despite evidence that in the months leading up to the visa-lifting decisions none of the three countries satisfied some of the government’s formal criteria for eliminating a visa, including high rates of refused visa and asylum claims.

The immigration ministry provided some data for Mexico, but none for Romania and Bulgaria, citing a clause in the Access to Information Act that says the access law does not apply to “material available for purchase by the public.” The ministry’s response also cited regulations, specific to that department, which allow it to charge large sums for “statistical data that have not been published by the department.”

In effect, the data—which should be at the fingertips of decision makers in IRCC—was considered to fall outside of the scope of the Access to Information Act because the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations allow the department to charge money for data searches.

“It’s obviously an illegitimate interpretation of the act,” said Toby Mendel, executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy in Nova Scotia, and an advocate for government transparency.

The Access to Information Act clause excluding material available for purchase “means material that you are selling, like a book,” not government data, said Mr. Mendel, who called it a “dishonest” interpretation of the act by the department.

The three-year visa refusal rate is a key figure used by the government to decide whether or not citizens of a particular country need to apply for a visa before travelling to Canada. Canada decided last year to waive the visa requirement for Romania and Bulgaria by December 2017 as part of what is widely seen to be a quid-pro-quo for support from those two countries for supporting the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe.

The government has not disclosed the latest visa refusal rate for those countries, but an April 2015 report from the European Commission, citing Canadian statistics, said the refusal rates in the first half of 2014 had been 16 per cent for Bulgaria and 13.8 per cent for Romania, which made hitting the target of four per cent over three years “quite difficult.”

…The fee starts at $100 for the first 10 minutes departmental employees spend searching for the requested information in their databases. After that, it increases to $30 per minute.

After being initially contacted by The Hill Times on April 20, the immigration department’s media relations team promised to provide the visa refusal rate for Romania and Bulgaria and respond to a series of questions about the fees charged under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations in relation to requests under the Access to Information Act. The department had not responded by filing deadline May 2.

Source: Ministry asks $30 per minute for data, despite Brison’s order to drop ATIP fees – The Hill Times – The Hill Times

Liberals issue openness directive, scrap most Access to Information fees

Very good first start (for those responsible for my pending ATIP requests, please note and process accordingly):

The Liberal government is immediately waiving all fees associated with access to information requests — apart from the $5 application charge.

It is also telling federal agencies to make information available in the format of the requester’s choice, such as handy data spreadsheets, wherever possible. [one of my and other’s biggest peeves]

The measures are included in an interim directive on openness from Treasury Board President Scott Brison.

Brison told a Commons committee studying changes to the access law Thursday the steps represent early progress on Liberal commitments for reform.

He said the openness directive is guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people it serves and should be open by default.

It also emphasizes that providing access is paramount to serving the public interest.

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Departments are supposed to answer within 30 days or provide valid reasons why they need more time.

However, the system has been widely criticized as slow, out of date and riddled with loopholes that allow agencies to withhold information rather than release it. The law has not been substantially updated since it took effect almost 33 years ago.

The Liberals plan to introduce legislation late this year or in early 2017 to implement several other short-term changes to the law based on election campaign commitments. They promise a full review of the Access to Information Act once the initial bill passes and every five years thereafter.

“This act is out of date,” Brison told MPs on the committee. “We never want to be in this place again.”

Brison said the next wave of measures would:

  • Give the information commissioner, an ombudsman for requesters, the power to order release of government information — something she cannot do now;

  • Ensure the act applies appropriately to the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet members, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts;

  • Address the issue of frivolous and vexatious requests so that the purpose of the act is respected;

  • Improve government performance reporting on Access to Information.

Source: Liberals issue openness directive, scrap most Access to Information fees – The Globe and Mail

Trudeau government asks for ideas on open government

Where do I begin?:

The Liberal government is asking Canadians for their ideas on making government more open.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison announced the national consultation today.

Brison says the transparency bus has left the station.

The minister says he believes that an open government is a more effective government.

Beginning today, people can go to open.canada.ca to offer their views on what should be in the next federal strategy on open government.

Officials will also hold in-person discussions across the country and the resulting plan is to be released this summer.

 Some initial thoughts on my short list:
  • The hardest issue of all: changing the culture and enforcing a default obligation of openness;
  • Provide information in electronic formats that allow manipulation for analytical purposes. The previous government only released public opinion research data tables in pdf format, rather than in spreadsheets. More recently, PCO was unable (or unwilling) to export its database of GiC appointments in spreadsheet format, requiring me to recreate this already public information;
  • Expanded data sets, issued regularly in a timely fashion. My initial list, starting with citizenship:
    • in addition to top 10 (consider top 25)  countries of birth, have complete table or one mapped to IRCC operational regions (top 10 only covers about 50 percent of new citizens)
    • naturalization rate after 6 years of permanent residency, broken down country of birth mapped to IRCC operational regions
    • naturalization rate after 6 years of permanent residency by immigration category, gender and province
    • citizenship test pass (language and knowledge) results by country of birth mapped to IRC operational regions
    For passports, numbers related to:
    • top 25 countries of birth (all)
    • top 25 countries of birth (foreign-born)
    • number of passports issued abroad mapped to IRC operational region (to give sense of Canadian expatriates)
    • breakdown by country of birth of passports issued abroad

    Appointments: regular employment equity type reporting for all GiC appointments.

Source: Trudeau government asks for ideas on open government – Macleans.ca

Liberals push Access to Information overhaul back to 2018

I am more forgiving of the Government than some of the critics. Better to take some time to get it right, given the policy and operational considerations, but in the meantime, Canadians need to hold the Government to account, provide input to the open.canada.ca consultation site, and continue to provide examples of where the system is not working (my experience under the previous government can be found in my  ATIP Delay Log):

The Liberal government is pushing their pledged overhaul of the outdated Access to Information system to 2018, Treasury Board President Scott Brison revealed Thursday.

The government will still move within a year to make some smaller changes to the 33-year old system, which allows Canadians to obtain government information for a $5 fee.

But the larger reforms to address well-documented problems such as delays and aggressively applied secrecy provisions will have to wait two years.

“This act hasn’t been updated since 1983. Getting it right is really important,” Brison told reporters Thursday.

“We feel we can move forward with some specific changes over the next several months . . . but that doesn’t obviate the need to do a deeper consultation in 2018, which will look at other areas of improvement.”

Once a world-leading law, the Access to Information Act has been allowed to decay under successive Liberal and Conservative governments. It has not been substantially updated since the early 1980s, when most government business was conducted on paper.

The situation reached a point where, in 2015, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault was forced to call the system a “shield against transparency.”

In their election platform, the Liberals pledged to make government information “open by default” — the principle being Canadians ultimately own their government’s work, and should be able to access it unless their government has a compelling reason to keep it secret.

The government also promised to eliminate the sometimes exorbitant fees departments charge for searching for and photocopying documents to release.

While those changes will have to wait, Brison’s department is moving forward on other commitments: applying the system to ministers’ offices, including the Prime Minister’s Office, administrative bodies in Parliament and federal courts, as well as giving Legault’s office the ability to issue binding orders for departments to release documents.

Treasury Board is expected to unveil legislation incorporating those changes, and potentially others from a parliamentary committee and public consultations, either in 2016 or 2017.

Fred Vallance-Jones, a journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, said the government appears to be moving in the right direction. But he questioned why more dramatic changes need to wait.

“I don’t think there’s any lack of advice that’s been given to the federal government over the last number of years about what is wrong with how the act is working,” Vallance-Jones, who leads Newspapers Canada’s annual Freedom of Information Audit, said Thursday.

“Those kinds of things have been on the table for quite a long time.”

Source: Liberals push Access to Information overhaul back to 2018 | Toronto Star