Federal files routinely lost, destroyed: government

Reprinted with permission from Southam Newspapers

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Thursday, February 7, 2002

Jim Bronskill

Southam Newspapers


OTTAWA - Many federal records are permanently lost or difficult to find because of a lack of staff, inadequate training and new technology that makes it easy to delete files, government departments candidly admit in a new report.

The deterioration of record management, coupled with the increased pace of the information age, means "public servants are no longer taking the time to ensure the creation of an adequate paper trail," says the report, prepared by a federal task force reviewing the Access to Information Act.

At the same time, government agencies question whether the Access Act, which allows the public to seek federal records, "may undermine transparency by discouraging officials from committing views to paper" and from providing frank advice to ministers for "fear of being misinterpreted" when documents are released.

The report summarizes task force consultations with 18 federal departments and agencies, including Defence, Foreign Affairs, Industry, Justice, the National Archives, Privy Council Office, Treasury Board Secretariat and Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

People who pay $5 can request an array of records - from correspondence and briefing notes to audits and studies - in federal files. Requests are supposed to be answered within 30 days. However, departments can invoke time extensions as well as extra fees.

In addition, certain information is barred from release under clauses covering personal data, international affairs, security and other sensitive areas.

The report says departments, strained by the demands of the Access Act, want more resources to process requests, higher application and processing fees, more time to respond, limits on the scope of records requested and power to reject "frivolous or vexatious" queries.

Much of the advice from departments contrasts sharply with views provided to the task force by users of the access law, who have criticized the act as too restrictive, expensive and cumbersome.

Departments told the task force most applications for information are submitted by professional requesters, corporations seeking data about competitors, journalists or "angry, dissatisfied citizens," and not the "average citizen" for which the act was designed.

"The growing adversarial approach of investigative journalism has led to increasing resentment of the act by the public service, and growing distrust of government by the public."

Several departments and agencies also said the federal information commissioner, an ombudsman for users of the Access Act, has persistently pushed his interpretation of the law "further and further beyond what they believe was intended, making compliance a moving target."

The report says a "less adversarial relationship" between departments, the commissioner's officer and requesters would make the act work better.

But departments acknowledged shoddy administration was a key difficulty.

"Many of the problems related to the application of the act stem from the lack of solid leadership, support and training with respect to information management," the report says.

"Program areas have voiced concerns about the lack of resources, the lack of corporate memory, under-resourcing and poor management of departmental information."

The report notes the access units of many federal departments have been forced to do more with less, as they have handled a growing volume of requests with fewer staff, amid cuts to the public service.

Compounding the problem is a general shortage of qualified people with the skills to process requests.

Departments said more personnel and training were needed to properly manage files and respond to access requests "effectively and efficiently."

Ultimately, the government must move away from paper-based record keeping to widespread electronic management, a system under which every page is numbered and documented, the report adds.


-----(Southam News)


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