mentality' impedes access
Report on secrecy says many feel law is used as a
shield, not a window on government; No need to hide files
that are never created
Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa
Tuesday, August 21, 2001
The Ottawa Citizen
The government has developed a "culture of
secrecy" or "siege mentality" over the
Access to Information Act, says a new report prepared for
a task force reviewing the federal law.
Since the legislation was in enacted in 1983 to instil
pubic trust in government, Canadians have come to believe
the government has shifted its focus from releasing
information to withholding it, the report suggests.
"Many feel that the act has become a shield to
deny access rather than a guide to providing
openness," says the 86-page report assembled for the
task force by the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa
The report, released yesterday, summarizes the views of
100 individuals or groups representing the news media,
business, academia, labour and lobbyists.
Participants said public servants are becoming
increasingly aware the information they generate is a
record. They are "taking care to code and protect
material they do not think should be released," the
"In many cases, public servants are not destroying
or concealing documents -- they are simply not creating
them. The result is that knowledge regarding the
decision-making process is lost."
Respondents submitted written briefs, consented to
interviews, or took part in roundtable discussions
organized between May and June of this year.
The exercises are part of an ongoing federal review
that will culminate in a final report to the government
this fall on the state of the 18-year-old access act.
The law gives Canadians the broad legal right to access
information recorded in any form controlled by most
federal government departments.
The act allows anyone who pays $5 to request a range of
records held by federal departments and agencies. The
government is supposed to respond within 30 days. Often,
time extensions and additional fees are imposed.
The legislation arose from the belief that citizens
should be able to hold the government accountable for
decisions taken. Effective accountability depends on
citizens having access to the information upon which the
decisions are made, says the report.
The report's participants agreed the right to access
had to be balanced with such concerns as individual
privacy, national security, cabinet and commercial
They called for the limits of access to be redefined in
such areas as those involving public-private partnerships;
and reducing the arbitrary 20-year waiting period before
cabinet records are released.
"Many stakeholders feel that although the essence
of the act is sound, it continues to be applied
inconsistently and in such a way as to contradict the
principles of openness, transparency and accountability
that underlie it," the report says.
Stakeholders took issue with uneven application of the
act to Crown corporations, most of which are not subject
to the act. The CBC was accused of being in a
"flagrant conflict" because its journalists make
frequent use of the act but the corporation "used its
exempt status to refuse to release information about
itself," the report says.
Rapid changes in information technology have created
new concerns over emerging computer databases containing
easily transferable information, says the report.
"Government-held information has the potential to
become a tradable commodity," the report says, noting
concerns over the protection of individual privacy. New
information technology, as it relates to access law, also
means "the public now expects to receive more
information more quickly and about more subjects than in
Some stakeholders urge the government to arrange for
"online submissions," whereby the access fee
could be automatically charged to a credit card. Others
wanted the fees dropped altogether.