Task force to call for access-to-info changes

Reprinted with permission from Southam Newspapers

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Friday, May 10, 2002

Jim Bronskill

Southam Newspapers

OTTAWA - A federal task force studying Canada's freedom-of-information law is poised to call for an array of changes to improve public access to government records such as now-secret cabinet papers.

During a presentation Friday in Winnipeg, task force chairwoman Andree Delagrave strongly signalled her coming report would recommend revisions to the 19-year-old Access to Information Act as well as new efforts to ensure the law is better understood and more effectively administered by public servants.

Many critics argue the access law, which has changed little since its 1983 inception, needs modernization to keep pace with the digital information revolution, public expectations about openness and shifts in government.

"There is no magic bullet for solving the shortcomings of the system," say notes prepared for

Delagrave's presentation. "To be effective, improvements have to be made on all fronts: legislative, administrative, cultural."

Delagrave told a national conference on access to government and corporate information that Canada needs not a revolution, but a "constant and irreversible evolution" towards greater transparency.

"Our challenges are not unique, but we need to do much better." The presentation notes were released Friday by the federal task force, appointed in August 2000 to review the Access to Information regime. The task force's final report to the government, originally due last fall, is expected this spring.

Under the access law, people who pay $5 can request government records ranging from expense reports and audits to memos and opinion polls. Federal agencies are supposed to answer within 30 days, but can take time extensions or impose extra fees.

Information relating to national security, personal affairs, legal advice and a host of other sensitive areas may be deleted from releases. Cabinet records less than 20 years old are completely off-limits.

And a number of Crown agencies, including the CBC and Canada Post, are exempt from the law.

Canadians are making modest but steadily increasing use of the Access Act, filing almost 21,000 requests in 2000-01, Delagrave told the conference. Administering the law costs about $30 million annually, or less than $1 per Canadian.

But for many, the law remains a mystery, Delagrave pointed out. "After almost 20 years, the act is still not understood by the public, users, third parties or even the public service."

The task force, composed of public servants, has held several round-table consultations with senior mandarins, federal employees who process access requests and users of the law including historians, librarians and journalists. It also commissioned numerous studies of the access regime.

The task force has concluded the overall "balance and design" of the federal access law is sound,  Delagrave told the conference. But the scope of the act is more restrictive than comparable legislation in other countries and Canadian provinces. For instance, no other jurisdiction shields cabinet records to the extent Canada does.

Among the other key findings:

  • A lack of consistently applied rules and practices for processing requests from the public.

  • Poor information management and file-keeping in government that hampers access to records.

  • Insufficient resources and a shortage of skilled staff to properly process access requests.

  • Frustration on the part of government employees who must help answer requests without proper support and training.

"Providing public servants with the resources and the tools required to do access work efficiently is not a luxury," the presentation notes say.

Delagrave said federal leadership, particularly from the Treasury Board, is needed to help solve the problems.

The formal process of requesting information under the act cannot meet all needs, she added. "Government information must be made available as widely and easily as possible, through a variety of channels."

-----(Southam News)

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