12/06/2012 10:56 EST | Updated 02/05/2013 05:12 EST

Access to Information system 'vulnerable' to budget cuts: info czar

OTTAWA - The federal access-to-information system, though finally back on its feet, may stumble again due to cuts from the government's budget axe, the information watchdog warns.

"The need for vigorous oversight of the access system is more essential than ever," Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault said Thursday after releasing her latest report cards on federal compliance with the access law.

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to seek federal files ranging from expense reports and email messages to briefing notes and internal audits.

Ideally, requests are answered within 30 days, but agencies often take much longer. In addition, many passages or even entire pages can be blacked out under exceptions involving such sensitive areas as national security or secret advice from officials.

An ombudsman for users of the law, Legault has regularly looked at whether key institutions are meeting their legal obligations of transparency.

Canada Post received an F on its latest report card after being stamped with red-alert status for its poor performance in 2009-10. The CBC got an A for its processing of requests in 2011-12, up from an F for its performance two years ago.

Legault applauded CBC President Hubert Lacroix for showing leadership by making compliance with the Access to Information Act a priority.

Although Canada Post has taken some steps toward improving its performance, it is still far from achieving optimal compliance with the law, she said.

Legault warned the overall health of the access-to-information system is vulnerable, especially since the full impact of recent federal budget slashing has yet to be felt.

The fear is that federal agencies will trim staff from the offices responsible for processing requests, creating a risk of backlogs and delays.

That will mean closer scrutiny of government agencies, Legault said.

"I have a range of tools at my disposal to accomplish this, including investigations and court actions."

Following a period of decline, there was a slight increase in 2010-11 in the percentage of requests answered by agencies within the standard limit of 30 days, she noted.

In addition, there was noticeable improvement in the percentage of cases in which all records located by an agency were actually disclosed to the requester.

Legault is awaiting government-wide statistics for 2011-12. "We will have to see whether that improvement continues or not."

Recent signs have proven discouraging.

"I do have some concerns," she said. "There are some institutions that are beginning to experience difficulties. We are hearing that it's because they have suffered budget cuts."

Legault said Canada Post had delivered only marginal improvement on its handling of access-to-information requests in the last two years.

While the post office had made progress on missed deadlines, the proportion of overdue files remained "unacceptably high" at almost 45 per cent, she said.

In addition, the number of complaints against Canada Post rose to 46 in 2011–2012 from 35 two years earlier — the majority relating to refusals to disclose information, Legault said.

In a statement Thursday, the post office said it was disappointed with the F rating, as it had taken steps — including clearance of a request backlog and better employee awareness — to improve its performance.

"Canada Post is a large, complex company operating in the competitive logistics and delivery marketplace, with a responsibility to protect commercially sensitive information," the corporation said.

"These factors have made, and will continue to make, our obligations under the act challenging."

Legault credited the CBC with making a concerted effort to respond to requests efficiently.

In 2009-10, the public broadcaster failed to answer almost 60 per cent of the requests it within the required timelines. In 2011-12, the percentage of overdue files dropped to just above four per cent.