09/27/2011 12:20 EDT | Updated 11/27/2011 05:12 EST

Feds stuck in paper age, yet to enter electronic era, info audit finds

OTTAWA - The federal government is stuck in the last century when it comes to making electronic data available to the public, says a new study.

A national freedom-of-information audit by a newspaper industry association found federal agencies refused to release statistical tables in electronic format.

Instead, the departments disclosed paper copies or pictures of the figures that can't be opened for analysis in a computer program — even though the Access to Information Act says records should be provided to the public "in the format requested."

"I think it's absurd," said Fred Vallance-Jones, a University of King's College journalism professor who led the project for Newspapers Canada.

"We're in the second decade of the 21st century, when everybody from three years old up uses data routinely. And governments still seem to want to enforce the 1980s on us. It really is absolutely baffling."

Overall, the audit found that using the web of information laws across the country to dislodge information from government files means being hindered by excessive delays and unnecessary fees.

"The freedom-of-information system in the country just isn't working. It's really a hodgepodge," said John Hinds, Newspapers Canada chief executive.

From January to May, 354 requests were sent to 11 federal departments and agencies, five provincial departments, 39 municipalities and 10 major hospitals.

The audit revealed wide variations in the way requests were handled across the country. Of the provinces and territories, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Yukon were the fastest responders. B.C. was the slowest.

Municipalities in Nova Scotia got poor marks, while those in Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland fared well.

The audit praised Saskatchewan municipalities for treating contracts involving the expenditure of public money as records the public has a right to see. But it noted Winnipeg declared these kinds of contracts confidential.

"There should be no need to consult with contractors before releasing agreed contract details to the public," the audit report says.

The study asks governments — which demand a range of fees for processing requests — to waive charges of less than $50.

"Fees add an extra step to the access process, making it less user-friendly and more bureaucratic," the report says. "The staff time required to calculate small fees, as well as the administrative costs of processing payments, may approach or exceed the amounts collected in many cases."

It also urges the federal officials who process access requests to step into the modern era.

Earlier this year the federal government created a data portal designed to allow ready access to statistics on everything from meteorological patterns to visa applications.

The move recognized the desire of researchers, journalists and other citizens to put federal data to use.

But Vallance-Jones said the shift in thinking is far from complete, with agencies reluctant to release electronic files in response to requests under the access act.

"Any electronic record is a record as defined by the act," he said. "So it ought to be accessible in its exact form. So if it's a spreadsheet, it should be released as a spreadsheet."

The federal Treasury Board, the agency responsible for the access law, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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