Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault reported today that the federal government's budget cuts could jeopardize a "fragile" access to information system that has been improving.
Legault's report, the third in a series on delays in responding to information requests, showed that a majority of government departments she investigated have improved since her first report in 2008-09, but there are still many concerns.
"While the overall results are initially positive and encouraging, I remain concerned that the system as a whole is fragile. The cuts announced in the latest budget challenged all departments and institutions to scrutinize every corner of their operations to save money," said Legault at a news conference.
The departments she studied expressed concerns about the potential impact of the cuts, and Legault said she shares those concerns. She said she will be watching closely to see if the concerns translate into more complaints to her office.
The report, titled "Measuring Up – improvements and ongoing concerns in access to information," was tabled in Parliament Thursday morning. Departments are supposed to respond to requesters within 30 days but every year, she receives hundreds of complaints about the timeliness and completeness of access to information requests.
The latest investigation revisited 18 at-risk and below-average performers from her first report and it finds that in most cases they implemented Legault's recommendations and improved their letter grades on her report cards. But the Canada Revenue Agency and RCMP stayed at the same level – a D and a C respectively – and three departments got worse.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada went from C to F, and Transport Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency dropped from D to F.
They cited staff turnover, workload, and lack of resources as reasons for non-compliance with the access to information legislation.
Delays could resurface
Legault said the access to information areas within government departments tend to be vulnerable when there are cuts and she has already heard from some requestors that they've been told their files are being delayed because of cuts.
She named the Departments of National Defence and Foreign Affairs and International Trade as ones that have improved, and said progress could be reversed due to cuts.
"If resources are being cut in these institutions, there is a risk that delays will creep up again and that will impede and have a negative impact on requestors' rights," she said.
She noted, however, that some heads of agencies have assured her that staff dedicated to access to information won't be reduced. She didn't specify which ones.
Legault announced that her office is suspending the report cards until at least 2014 in order to focus more resources on the complaint caseload, which is at more than 1,800 files. She said she wants to use her office's "limited resources" to reduce the amount of time it takes to respond to complaints and close the files.
'We are significantly taxed'
In March, the federal budget cut her office's $10-million budget by five per cent and it was already stretched thin before losing that money, she said.
"The impact of the cuts is I have to really target where I put my efforts," she said. "We are significantly taxed with these budget cuts, that's for sure."
She intends to continue to monitor departments' compliance with the access to information act through other tools, including the annual reports that they are required to table in Parliament. Legault said the recent improvements in various departments has reduced the urgency for her report cards, but she will do them again if she feels progress is slipping.
Legault's report contains details about each of the 18 departments, including how many new requests they have received since her first report, number of completed requests and complaints, and to what degree they implemented her previous recommendations.
She said in the report that her investigations uncovered a number of practices contrary to the spirit of the access to information law. There were instances, for example, when staff didn't bother to retrieve the records requested because in their view, they believed the information in them would be exempt from the law. That's not allowed, according to Legault, and the records must be retrieved and reviewed.
She has also seen files closed too early, and the commissioner said the practices appear to be designed to expedite the processing of requests so they don't exceed the deadline. That's being done at the expense of the rights of the requesters, she said.