'Siege 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 Citizen

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Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Rick Mofina
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 think-tank.

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 report says.

"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 confidentiality.

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 previous decades."

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.


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