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

Immigration: Canada expands non-Canadians’ rights to information and privacy requests

Given the lengthy ATIP processes, particularly for policy-related requests, not sure the degree to which this change will results in material benefits:

Earlier this month, Canada announced a major change to its rules for access to information and privacy (ATIP) in the Canada Gazette.

The change is simple, but the impacts are profound. The Canadian government is going to allow anyone to make an ATIP request under the Privacy Act. This new policy will bring Canada into line with global standards on ATIP. It will also vastly expand the rights of non-Canadians.

Laws such as the Privacy Act allow people to make ATIP requests to the federal government. Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is a federal agency, so it is subject to the Privacy Act.

Currently, there are limitations on who can make an ATIP request through the Privacy Act. One of the items limits the right of access to two groups:

  • Canadian citizens and permanent residents, inside or outside of Canada; and
  • any entity (person or business) inside Canada, whether a citizen or not.

This limitation means that non-Canadians who are outside of Canada cannot make requests under the Privacy Act. There is a way to get around this rule. An ineligible person can get someone who is eligible to make a request on their behalf. However, this process can be expensive and time-consuming.

Having the ability to make an ATIP request to IRCC can be very helpful. For example, an ATIP request can allow a person to access their Global Case Management System (GCMS) notes. These are the detailed records of a person’s immigration case. They will explain IRCC staff’s thinking and decision-making. They can help a person understand why IRCC has decided the way it has. This knowledge, in turn, can also help the person challenge the IRCC decision. For example, the person could show the officer ignored or mis-interpreted something.

IRCC is a popular target for ATIP requests. In fact, there are more ATIP requests for IRCC than there are for any other federal government department combined.

Because this change is so important, IRCC expects it will need time to make sure it goes smoothly. For example, IRCC will have to change forms and processes. It will also likely have to deal with a much greater number of requests. For this reason, the government is delaying when the new rule takes effect. Per the Canada Gazette, the Canadian government changed the Extension Order on July 14, 2021. However, the Gazette also noted that the change takes effect on its first anniversary. This means that on July 14, 2022, the new rule will come into force.

The new rule is a major step forward for non-Canadians. There is a delay in effect. This delay, itself, is because the change is so large and important.

Source: Immigration: Canada expands non-Canadians’ rights to information and privacy requests

Canada has an access-to-information system in name only

Have encountered some of the same frustrations:

The Treasury Board is quietly conducting a long-promised review of the Access to Information Act, which governs how Canadians can obtain records held by the government. Unfortunately, these consultations appear to be more of a public relations exercise than a serious effort to improve Canadians’ right to access.

The original act dates to 1983 and has barely changed since then. It has not kept up with the advent of the internet, nor have fundamental weaknesses been fixed. Changes made by the Trudeau government in recent years have failed to fully open promised classes of records and have not advanced pro-active publication as far as needed.

Today, we have an access-to-information system in name only. A lack of firm timelines means requests regularly stretch on for months, if not years. Broad exemptions mean crucial information is withheld from the public. A culture of secrecy in many departments undermines the act almost entirely. The Office of the Information Commissioner is underresourced to handle the deluge of complaints.

The current review process is not going to fix all that. Unlike in past consultations, the Treasury Board is not releasing any kind of green paper or other consultative document to chart a course for the reforms, nor has the government sought independent expert advice.

A green paper is essential to capturing and conveying the essence of the innumerable public reports on problems with the system, which go back decades. Drawing on outside experts is equally important for any real reform agenda, especially one that might return the Canadian government to an equal footing with many allied jurisdictions. Canada was an early entrant into the arena of freedom of information; now we are a disappointing laggard.

Reform and revitalization of the Access to Information regime must include significant legislative changes, but must also consider the ecosystem in which it operates.

As it stands, the act allows for the government to exempt and withhold information “obtained in confidence,” information deemed “injurious to the conduct of international affairs,” virtually any information relating to defence and security, and nearly every record that could be described as providing “advice” to the government. These exemptions, as currently worded, simply reinforce practices of hoarding records and a culture of entrenched secrecy. We propose strict limitations on these exemptions, and a test that would require the government to prove the harm of releasing such information.

Some records are completely excluded at present, such as Cabinet confidences. These should be brought under the act, with appropriate restrictions so disputes over access to them can be adjudicated by the Information Commissioner. In addition, information practices are changing in government with ever greater reliance on text messaging, verbal briefings and other transitory material. The act should oblige all government agencies to properly document their decision-making processes and retain these records.

Equally important, a real public-interest override clause must be added, with an oversight role for the Information Commissioner.

There needs to be a declassification regime for all government records. Other governments declassify documents after 30 years or less: Canadians are lucky if these files are ever released. Library and Archives Canada, in particular, should play a role in receiving such records and educating Canadians on their importance.

Once processed and released to an individual requester, the information in question should be made publicly available on a consolidated and searchable government database, including both the metadata about the record and the record itself. We should do away with the wasteful cycle of returning records back into the hands of departmental gatekeepers after every request is fulfilled.

These measures need to be accompanied by a major change in culture within government, including a lowering of the walls of secrecy and an alignment between the Access to Information Act and the principles that underscored the National Security Transparency Commitment promised by the Liberal government in 2017.

A broken access system wastes government resources, does not serve Canadians and does not illuminate our governance history and practice. But it is not yet beyond salvation. The Treasury Board review needs to embrace a bold vision for the future and make a deep change to the legislation and administration of the act.

Dean Beeby is an Ottawa-based independent journalist, author and a specialist on freedom of information. Justin Ling is a freelance investigative journalist. James L. Turk is the director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University. Wesley Wark is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-canada-has-an-access-to-information-system-in-name-only/

IRCC’s ‘arbitrary’ automatic extensions on information requests created ‘unfair playing field,’ say immigration agents

Understand the policy rationale given the volume of requests and limited capacity, but underlines the need in IRCC modernization to reduce the need for ATIP requests on the status of individual files:

Some immigration agents filing numerous access to information requests on behalf of their clients are feeling burned by a recently phased-out Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada practice that they say was “arbitrary” and akin to institutional targeting, harming their companies’ reputations and the confidence clients placed in them.

Five unnamed people were highlighted in a recent special report by Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard, who were identified by the department to be subject to automatic delays in requests they made through Canada’s access to information laws. The report, tabled in Parliament on May 25, found the IRCC was out of step with access to information rules. While the Office of the Information Commissioner’s (OIC) probe was triggered by an influx of requests to the department between 2017 to 2020, it learned that five individuals—consultants, agents, or lawyers specializing in immigration—were identified as frequent requesters by the department, which then “automatically” decided an extension was needed on their files.

Under the act, federal institutions have to respond to access requests within 30 calendar days or otherwise request an extension of 60 or 90 days as required. Rules dictate the head of an institution should help facilitate complete, timely, and accurate responses to requesters “without regard to the identity of a person making the request.” In place since 2019, the IRCC policy was scrapped in March 2021, shortly after the commissioner ruled it against the act and recommended it be ended.

The Hill Times spoke with several people who participated in Ms. Maynard’s investigation and said they faced challenges in getting information from the department over those years, some of whom said they filed thousands of requests for information from the IRCC.

Ms. Maynard’s office fields complaints from organizations, businesses, reporters, Parliamentarians, and individuals who encounter difficulties in their access to government records under the Access to Information Act. Complaints are typically related to delays or outright refusals from some institutions.

The Hill Times obtained documents that show IRCC identified the five people in a Sept. 19, 2019, email between IRCC and departmental ATIP workers and, the following day, officials suggested that “by looking at the numbers the first three” should be subject to a 90-day extension while the last two should receive a 60-day extension. The names were redacted, but The Hill Times has seen two names mentioned separately in two sets of documents.

Manmeet Rai, founder of getgcms.com, a website that helps clients request their immigration case files from the department, was listed in one of these emails as among the five. His requests appeared to be flagged to automatically have a 90-day extension added to them, effective Sept. 23, 2019, according to an internal email.

Mr. Rai said he received a “blanket” extension on all requests filed under his name since September 2019, and that development led him to be “concerned about what is going on inside the government.” He learned his name appeared on that IRCC list when he filed an access-to-information request on his own name.

Mr. Rai declined to delve into specific business information, like how many requests he filed each year, but said he submitted more than 7,000 requests in 2019 alone.

He said IRCC’s policy, also revealed in Ms. Maynard’s investigation, was “arbitrary.” Its application, he said, was “a targeted exercise toward a specific group of people who were filing requests to help immigrant applicants who were not otherwise entitled to obtain their information” under the act. His requests were “clumped together” when they should have been treated as independent files.

“Everyone wants the information as soon as possible, because if the information is available to them, they can take some corrective action if their application is in progress,” said Mr. Rai. “But if they are to wait for 120 days from the date they filed the request, that is just absolutely dreadful for anyone.” (As of publication, the department had not yet responded to requests for comment from The Hill Times.)

While Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.) accepted and agreed with Ms. Maynard’s findings, he noted in his response to the report, that “bulk requesters take a significant amount of IRCC resources due to their sheer volume.” In 2019-20, an average of 6,157 pages of records per business day had to be pulled for the top five requesters, the minister said, amounting to more than 30,000 pages per week.

“These top five requestors alone made over 10,000 requests last year. Paired with the extraordinary growth in requests … it became apparent that IRCC needed to take steps to support broader access rights in an equitable manner.” He said “nevertheless,” the department would no longer be relying on its policy.

Mr. Rai, who took part in the OIC’s investigation, commended the office for being “co-operative and upfront.” That the policy no longer exists is a testament to it living up to its task as a watchdog, he said, but he still feels the policy damaged his business. Mr. Rai noted over the last several years, there have been a swath of websites offering similar services that have popped up, but which promised deadlines he could not meet given the automatic extension applied to his information requests.

“You don’t have to be licensed to do that, you just have to be in Canada,” he said, noting that may have been why the department saw an “influx of so many requests” in recent years.

According to the OIC’s report, IRCC received a total of 116,928 access requests in 2019-20, a figure 42 per cent greater than the year before. All other government institutions combined received a fraction of that figure, equalling 39,294 requests during the same fiscal year. Out of this figure, 98 per cent were related to immigration case files, coming from foreign nationals or immigration lawyers hoping to get more details on their clients’ files.

Typically, Mr. Rai said his organization serves two types of clients: people filing permanent residency applications, and those looking for temporary residence, like students or visitors.

“The outcome was that instead of the people who were already doing it, there were new websites which came out and said, ‘See, we are doing it better than others because these guys are being targeted and they get an extension, whereas we can provide you the same information within 30 days,’ ” he said.

IRCC should be ‘transparent’ with rejected applicants

IRCC should be more “transparent” with rejected applicants, who are often keen to know why (and file access-to-information requests) so they could course correct moving forward, added Mr. Rai.

“If IRCC is more transparent in giving out information to each individual … people would be happy and would get some solace out of it that something is happening, rather than just keeping quiet after the application is filed,” he said.

It’s a reality the OIC appeared to be aware of. In its report, the office noted the department’s MyAccount portal “provides little information on the status of the processing of an application,” with template letters used to let applicants know if they have been accepted or rejected. IRCC is now looking to do a “comprehensive review of various refusal letters,” with a new temporary resident refusal letter that could be used for the 2021-22 year, according to its response to Ms. Maynard’s report.

But according to the OIC’s report, the department still does not plan to offer excerpts of notes made by the immigration officers assigned to a person’s file, which is a “frequent” request in complaints it receives.

Prateek Sharma, founder of gcmsbuddy.com, also took part in the OIC’s investigation and said he suspected he’s one of the top five identified by IRCC for automatic extensions. Since starting the website in 2017, he said he has filed between 7,000 and 8,000 complaints against IRCC with the OIC.

The bulk of his clients hired him in 2018, and shortly after, the “majority” of his company’s requests started getting 90-day extensions. He agreed with Mr. Rai that the time period coincided with a steady rise in websites claiming they had faster turnaround times.

“Word spreads easily among a small community. There are forums and WhatsApp groups around, and people started complaining that this website is getting all the extensions and another website has just started that’s not getting [them],” he said. “It contributed to an unfair playing field for us, because it was not my fault. People wanted to know about their status, and it was not like I was requesting the same information for the same person again and again.”

Ms. Maynard noted in a May 25 interview that requesters were filing multiple requests for multiple clients; Mr. Sharma said as a result, he felt services like his were singled out and he took a reputational hit. (Citing privacy concerns and the nature of its investigations, the OIC declined to name the five identified requesters and how many each filed.)

“[Clients] are worried about their future because they have a lot of things to plan; moving to Canada and starting a new life,” he noted.

“If some business is doing good, you’re kind of targeting them. The more requests we are sending, that means we are a popular website and we are offering a good service.” According to Mr. Sharma, there were about three or four major websites offering a similar service before 2019, a figure he predicted has since grown to 10 or more. “That prompted people to start new websites and now they are on par with us. All our hard work and everything—our reputation was ruined because of this.” While “thankful” the policy is now phased out, he wasn’t sure “if there’s a way to measure those losses.”

Because of the repeated extensions, Mr. Sharma said his group was subject to “angry customers” who noted other websites were offering a quicker turnaround. “It was a hard time, because the number of emails we used to get asking for status updates increased a lot,” he said.

Think about applicants, not just workers, urges agent 

The Hill Times spoke to another requester who took part in the OIC’s investigation, an associate with gcmsnotes.com who also rancaipsnotes.com. They asked not to be identified by name, but their name was listed in a Sept. 20, 2019, document obtained by The Hill Times. The email named the associate as somebody whose files would be subject to a 60-day extension, effective Sept. 23, 2019, per an internal IRCC email.

The associate said from their clients’ perspective, it was “quite frustrating” not to know why their application may have been refused, especially if those applying are students. Because intake periods for colleges and universities can range from January, May, or September, the associate said many clients wanted to know how to tweak their applications so they could apply in time for the next period, while others may have punted their timelines to start classes to a later semester.

“People are falling behind in their careers, or in starting a career, because of this arbitrary decision on their file,” the associate said. “It had a pretty big impact. … For some of them, they had to make life-altering decisions about whether to postpone their intake. They were disappointed with that.”

The associate supported the OIC recommendation to beef up IRCC’s staff so there are more workers tasked with handling the volume of requests. Ms. Maynard earlier said there are some 200-plus analysts helping the IRCC, which ranks among the bigger units. Her office, which itself is subject to the act, has about three full-time workers.

Mr. Mendicino told her office he agreed with the recommendation, according to the report, though his written response fell short of committing to a number of workers or funding. The department is working to secure more resources “in conjunction with the departmental action plan, while implementing permanent technological solutions,” he wrote in his response to the OIC.

Asked for more information about the IRCC’s policy, IRCC spokesperson Peter Liang did not elaborate in a May 27 email. Thanking the OIC for its “thorough and thoughtful investigation,” Mr. Liang said the department has developed a management action plan in response to the report, though the link he referred to only mentioned that the policy no longer exists. The department did not respond in time for publication to follow up questions about Mr. Rai, the associate who said they were among the five targeted, or how the policy came to be.

“They are concerned about the well-being of the IRCC employees. … Who’s concerned about the well-being of the students and the families who are affected by this?” the associate asked.

Concerns about unlicensed immigration consultants have long persisted in the field, with legislation to set up a new College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants passing in 2019.

In her report, Ms. Maynard noted the department flagged “dishonest actors who are taking advantage of vulnerable” people by, among other things, charging clients high fees for access requests, though regulation of the industry is an issue beyond the office’s “legal jurisdiction” and is not addressed in the report.

When one requester asked for departmental communication “directing ATIP staff to seek time extensions for ATIP requests” between September and December 2019—when the phased-out policy was in effect—they were told there were no records but “all instructions were given verbally,” according to documents obtained by The Hill Times.

The associate questioned whether verbal instructions were appropriate.

“If you’re a large organization handling over 100,000 requests a year, and you are going to get instructions verbally, how are you going to make sure your employees in the department are consistent in their actions? How are you going to hold your people accountable?” the associate wondered. “Somebody has to write them down to make sure they’re consistently applied across the board.”

IRCC defended its practice to Ms. Maynard’s office, her report noted, arguing the Treasury Board Secretariat’s (TBS) policy on access to information, “endorse[s]” the practice they employed. But in her ruling, Ms. Maynard said while the TBS offers “guidance” to institutions on what is considered a large volume of records, “it in no way suggests that a series of unrelated access to information requests can be lumped together.” According to that guidance, a large number of records is generally considered such if it requires more than 500 pages to be pulled and if their production interferes with the institution’s operations.

Citing privacy concerns and the nature of its investigations, OIC spokesperson James Ellard said in an email the office does not identify requesters by name, nor can it offer a breakdown of requests made by each individual. Asked if it was aware of any other government institutions that have identified top requesters in this way, he said the circumstances were “unique” to the department.

“This type of dramatic increase [in access requests] has not been observed elsewhere, nor is the commissioner aware of any other department adopting the practice of grouping requests by individual and automatically claiming time extensions to all requests made by these individuals,” he said, adding Ms. Maynard is “pleased” to see the practice is no longer in effect.

The Hill Times has asked the IRCC who was responsible for the practice’s creation, implementation, and authorization, along with its justification, but did not hear back by publication. The paper also presented some of the sentiments expressed by the requesters to the department for comment.

Source: IRCC’s ‘arbitrary’ automatic extensions on information requests created ‘unfair playing field,’ say immigration agents

Immigration applicants forced to file access to information requests to get answers on status: report

Hopefully, the GCMS modernization announced in Budget 2021 will enable this through an expanded MyAccount portal with increased functionality to both improve applicant service as well as reduce ATIP requests and costs:

The federal department in charge of immigration applications has been flooded with access to information requests because it provides so little information to applicants proactively, according to a new report by the Information Commissioner.

Have you applied to immigrate in Canada and want to know the status of your application? Or maybe your request was denied and you want to understand why? Well, instead of being able to see that information via your unique login on Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) Web portal, you have to file an access to information request (ATIP).

Source: Immigration applicants forced to file access to information requests to get answers on status: report

For the IRCC response, see: IRCC launches efforts to streamline and modernize access to information and privacy system and the related Management Action Plan.

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