The Transparency Rot Runs Deep

By Ken Rubin

July 23, 2018 - Canada's broken access to information system has increasingly become entrenched, complete with backlog specialists and a new Information Commissioner facing her office's own backlog.

Parliament did not pass Bill C-58, the government's regressive anti-transparency bill before the summer recess which would give bureaucrats added powers to deny and delay public access and would limit the commissioner's order powers.

That the access system is even in deeper crisis was highlighted recently by the House of Commons Order Paper response to Conservative MP Kevin Waugh. It showed long time multi-month multi-year delays being taken by government agencies way past acceptable deadlines.

Leading the pack were National Defence, Canadian Revenue Agency, Correctional Services and Health Canada. One  agency, CRA, however, just won a June, 2018  Information Commissioner award for best access coordinator, as selected by commission investigators. Such agencies are adding some resources but keep having long delay times providing users second class service and in the end, too many denials.

Health Canada in particular illustrates the rot that has set in.

Although many files deal with important health and safety matters, they are left backlogged, including one access request on lethal asbestos products. Others like the backup data to pre-drug licencing where adverse side effects, including where a death has been reported, sit for years. Some are back logged by consultants who take the files home for “consideration”. When two to four years later the files are received, (while others still are stalled), the information is primarily mundane materials and quite self-serving.

The system breeds creative employment. One strategy which is becoming more commonplace is to split up applications received into a few requests. That increases departmental stats and workload. Time delays are justified by number of pages that are “dressed” which ensures a very slow and increasingly rigid process. It may take months to get two of 757 pages “reviewed” and that's even before lengthy and sometimes mostly unnecessary consultations are considered. Then there is more “review”, still more layers of review followed by a slow moving approval “process”.

New Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard is getting into the action. She's setting up the  annual best access to information coordinator award. One of her efforts is to persuade complainants with old appeals to drop them. Maynard is supposed to be reinventing the “triage” system to that end and wants better help from departments for “efficiencies”.

I recently received a surprise package July in which Maynard signed off on a complaint of mine dating back nine years ago. The 2009 complaint tried to get less exemptions and more data on National Defence camouflage screens contracts.

The Access to Information Commission's Office did little work on the complaint for several years and when done the data was inconsequential and out of date. Maynard has since closed he file.

Maynard stated that she wants to improve her “office's operational efficiency in order to reduce our inventory” and that such unacceptable “delays you experienced will not incur in the future”. Somehow, this totally absurd travesty of access rights is tied to an invite to sit down with her.

Meanwhile, Treasury Board's solution of “pro-active disclosures” in lieu of really handling access operational requests is wearing thin. For example, contracts and their results are being proclaimed as something that should be public but are not always released.

Even the Supreme Court of Canada has gotten into the grove, placing a 50 year embargo on public access to the deliberations of its judges from the time they rule on a case.

The rot has been there for a while and keeps coming, generating more anger among those seeking their democratic rights of public access. 

Ken Rubin has been filing access requests for over thirty five years and can be reached at kenrubin.ca 

This story was first published by The Hill Times on July 23, 2018, and is republished here with the author's and The Hill Times' permission.

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