Media, politicians get slower Access to Info service: study

Reprinted with permission from Southam Newspapers

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Monday, May 6, 2002

Jim Bronskill

Southam Newspapers

OTTAWA - Formal requests for information submitted by journalists and political parties to the Human Resources Department took at least three weeks longer to answer than queries from other Canadians, a new study has found.

The research paper, prepared by academic Alasdair Roberts, concludes the delays were evident even after other considerations, such as the type or scope of the request, had been taken into account. 

The lapses are significant, Roberts writes, because timely access to federal records is "obviously of critical importance" to media and party requesters, who deal with rapidly shifting political issues.

Roberts, an expert on Canadian information law, is an associate professor of public administration at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University in NewYork state. His research was supported by a grant from the Canadian Newspaper Association. 

People who pay $5 can use the Access to Information Act to request records held by most federal departments. Agencies are supposed to answer within 30 days or provide a valid reason for taking a time extension.

"Many officials and ministers no longer respect the law," says the research paper, entitled A Double Standard on Access to Information?

"They believe that the law is prone to abuse and imposes disproportionate administrative costs; and that journalists and politicians twist the information they receive to create a distorted view of federal ministries." 

The study is to be published this month in Policy Options, the magazine of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, a non-partisan think-tank in Montreal.

The analysis drew on data from Human Resources concerning 2,120 Access to Information requests completed by the department between Jan. 1, 1999, and Dec. 31, 2001. 

Figures show the department's compliance with time limits under the access law slipped significantly in 2000, when the agency was deluged with requests as a result of allegations of mismanagement of job creation programs.

During the period 1999 through 2001, it took an average of 69.2 days forthe department to answer a request from a political party, 63.2 days to respond to one from the media and 38.2 days to answer any other category of requester.

"Requests identified by HRDC as coming from the media or political parties,or tagged as sensitive, took substantially longer to process, even after other considerations - the type of request, the size of the request, HRDC's overall workload - are taken into account." 

A Human Resources spokeswoman said Monday the department needed more time to review the paper before commenting.

The study says there is evidence federal departments and agencies generally handle sensitive Access to Information requests in a similar fashion. 

A report completed for the Treasury Board Secretariat this year observed that in some departments, senior officials were given weekly updates about the content of incoming requests so they could identify important subjectsfor close monitoring.

Similarly, some federal officers who process access requests regularly prepare impact statements that alert senior officials and communications staff, who deal with the media, about the anticipated consequences of disclosing information.

Requesters can complain to the information commissioner, an ombudsman for users of the law, about unsatisfactory service. 

Roberts notes that in cases of delay such a move is often seen as futile because the average time needed to resolve a delay complaint was more than three months in the period 1999 to 2001.

Roberts suggests giving the information commissioner authority to force non-compliant departments to publish plans for improving their track records.

"Departments would become publicly accountable for deficient performance and their failure to take appropriate remedial action."

-----(Southam News)

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