Despite assurances that overhauling the federal access to information system was a top priority during the election, the Liberal government just got a failing grade in a new audit of Canada’s freedom of information regimes.
The National Freedom of Information Audit, led by Fred Vallance-Jones, an associate professor at the University of King’s College, and funded by News Media Canada, sends identical information requests to all levels of governments in order to measure their response and identify areas where improvements could be made. It is the seventh audit since 2008. This year’s audit research started in March 2017.
“No real measurable improvement”
The federal government had numerous issues responding to requests, according to the report. Researchers audited 25 federal departments, crown corporations and agencies, and found overall that they “lagged behind” municipal, provincial and territorial governments in responding to access requests. “The federal system is uniquely slow,” the report authors, Vallance-Jones and Emily Kitagawa, note.
This year the audit actually looked at roughly double the federal departments and agencies it normally looks at, to see if there truly had been any changes under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.
Only 33 per cent of requests the researchers made at the federal level were returned within 30 days. Two agencies, the RCMP and the Department of National Defense, didn’t answer any requests for access. Among agencies that did respond, there was a reluctance to provide machine readable data — the report notes that ironically, the CBC, which is heavily invested in data journalism, only provided data sets on paper.
“The results in 2017 have shown no real measureable improvement in access, despite the Liberal promises of increased transparency,” write Vallance-Jones and Kitagawa.
Bill C-58 has its own issues
In June 2017, Bill C-58, which would amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, was tabled by the Liberal government with the stated aim of improving the access to information system by giving the information commissioner the power to order governments to release information, among other measures.
But Vallance-Jones and Kitagawa note that there is much wanting in the proposed legislation. For example, the bill would allow departments to reject requests for many number of reasons, including if the request is too large.
It leaves one glaring question for researchers: “Whether the government is expanding its powers to reject requests outright partly as a way to solve some of the problems of poor performance.”
Provinces and cities are faring better
Overall, provinces, territories and municipalities performed better than organizations at the federal level. In fact, many of them have made their access to information systems much easier to use. Nova Scotia was specifically cited in the report as being among the most user-friendly for allowing online access, as do a few other governments. Response rate within the 30 day limit stood at 95 per cent for municipalities, and 58 per cent for provinces and territories.
However, Vallance-Jones and Kitagawa noted that you have to look carefully at that data. While some agencies responded quickly, they didn’t disclose in full, to the point where they might as well of not disclosed at all.
And while fees overall are dropping — total fees for the audit were estimated at just over $7,000 this year, compared to $74,000 in 2015 — some municipalities and provinces are still charging large amounts to release information. Windsor, Ontario was specifically picked out for asking for $1,872.60 for documents.