Access to information: 'Not a priority,' federal agencies respond

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Access to information: “Not a priority,” federal agencies respond

Treasury Board has yet to conclude its review of the Access to Information Act which began in June 2020.

Federal departments and agencies have admitted in recent months that access to information is “not a priority” for them when another government institution consults them before whether or not to release documents.

The statement appears in black and white in a memo obtained by The Canadian Press from the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), under the Access to Information Act.

The two-page document lists the main problems that have been reported to TBS by other federal organizations in their compliance with this law used by journalists, researchers and pressure groups to force the obtaining of internal reports and government communications, for example.

Specifically, the note prepared in late April summarizes reasons for limited capacity to process and respond to consultations.

When a department that has received a request for x27;access to information intends to release a document that concerns other institutions, it is common for intergovernmental consultations to be triggered, which often leads to long processing times, according to observers.

Institutions gave the following reasons for their limited capacity to process and respond to consultations. They have been divided into three main headings, can we read in the document, where are also listed possible solutions for the Treasury Board, responsible for ensuring compliance with legislative obligations throughout the federal apparatus in terms of #x27;Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP).

Under one of the headings, Priority vs. Mandate, we find the mention that organizations have reported having competing interests, topped with a parenthesis where we can read that ATIP is not a priority. in their institution.

Asked about this, the TBS media relations team denies, in a written statement sent by email, that institutions have had this response. The analyst instead used the category “not a priority in their institution”. to rank responses where the ATIP Office had limited or no access to the workplace or had restricted access to work tools, argues.

The The COVID-19 pandemic and working from home have had a crippling effect on the efficiency of many federal department ATIP offices, but Ottawa says things are improving, especially since changes to public health measures.

The document is the result of an internal analysis that was never completed or communicated to senior management, TBS media relations officials also add.

Toby Mendel, executive director of the Center for Law and Democracy, sees a red flag in the mention of not being a priority when consulting the document obtained by The Canadian Press.

This response is like saying, “For us, it's not a priority to obey the law.” That's a shocking thing to say, he said in an interview.

Whoever heads the Nova Scotia-based organization holding a world ranking right to information noted that intergovernmental consultations are not required in Canadian law and can be time consuming.

The Access to Information Act establishes that federal departments and agencies are required to respond within 30 days of receiving a request, but it also allows departments to self-identify. -grant additional time by invoking certain articles of the law.

For Mr. Mendel, there is no doubt that the law must be tightened to mark out these time limits. He pointed out that this exists elsewhere and precludes 60, 90 or 120 day time limits, as an example.

Wanting to expose a contrast, he affirmed that such slowness is not seen when a ministry receives the mandate to answer the question of the minister at its head. No one is ever going to come back to the minister and say, “We need 120 days to get back to you,” he illustrated.

Federal Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard also addressed the issue of protracted consultations when she testified in May before a House of Commons committee. She mentioned that these, often involved in the delays in processing access requests, could be necessarily limited in time, especially since they are not legally required.< /p>

In Mr. Mendel's eyes, intergovernmental consultations can also be an exercise in finding excuses to avoid providing documents or to redact – or black out – portions of them before handing them over to the requester. They can consult for ways to find a reason to refuse to disclose. This is the purpose of their consultations, he explains.

In addition to issues related to competing interests, the document sets out two other challenges, namely human resources issues and those of technologies.

In a separate written statement provided to The Canadian Press, TBS said it reiterated in September that a directive requires institutions to treat consultation requests from other government institutions with the same priority as requests from other government institutions. x27;access to the information they receive directly.

Additional directives have also been given, it is reported. The notice states that it is not acceptable practice to ask another institution to review an entire ATIP file without providing additional guidance to narrow the scope of consultations or relevant context to expedite the consultation process.

The office of Treasury Board President Mona Fortier did not comment independently of the TBS media relations team, although ;invited to do so.

The Treasury Board has still not concluded its review of the Access to Information Act which was started in June 2020. According to a previously planned schedule, this was to be completed in early 2022.

For months, Minister Fortier's office has been ensuring that the final report concluding this review will be tabled in Parliament by the end of the year.

The Trudeau government had set itself a requirement for review by modernizing the Act respecting the x27;Access to Information, in 2019, through the passage of Bill C-58. Commissioner Maynard called this overhaul a good start, but not enough, which echoes repeated criticism from many experts.

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