10/21/2013 05:19 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Access to Information Process Needs Reforms

In early 2013 I submitted several ATI requests to Elections Canada regarding their handling of the "robocalls" investigation. The questions were simple enough: who's doing this investigation? How much will it cost? When will it be done? The information they did reveal was shocking.

Canada's access to information (ATI) process needs improvements, says Canada's information commissioner, Suzanne Legault.

Legault notes the original ATI legislation was passed over 30 years ago, and is in desperate need of updates and improvements.

In the time since, computers, emails, and cell phones have made the ATI process more complex and harder to track, and the legislation needs to reflect this.

Legault notes most complaints her office receives are generally systemic issues regarding:

- Extensions, where the government department says it will take longer than the mandatory 30-day timeframe

- Delays, where the government department simply does not respond within the mandatory 30-day timeframe

- Fees, where the government department says they will require more than the $5 processing fee for a particular request

- "Refusals," where the government refuses to answer the request for information because it does not feel it has to do so.

These problems could be addressed through legislative updates, for which the President of the Treasury Board is responsible.

Legault also notes the ATI process is being used more and more by average Canadians rather than politicians, professionals, and academics, further demonstrating a requirement to update the laws to make the process easier to understand and navigate.

This legislative update should also demonstrate a shift in terminology. As Bob Fife pointed out at a recent conference during the Right to Know Week hosted at the University of Ottawa, even the term "access to information" suggests the government has information that we Canadians can access. But this is the wrong way of labelling the process: in other jurisdictions, including Ontario, it's known as freedom of information, not access to. The information the government has deserves to be free, transparent, and known to Canadians -- not "accessed" upon request.

There are three instances which I think highlight the need for access to information reform:

1. Elections Canada

In early 2013 I submitted several ATI requests to Elections Canada regarding their handling of the "robocalls" investigation. The questions were simple enough: who's doing this investigation? How much will it cost? When will it be done?

The information they did reveal was shocking: the investigation had been contracted out to private contractors; those private contractors had been given large contracts in odd amounts; and those contractors had a history of giving political donations to the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois.

But there were many questions that went unanswered without justification: salary amounts were hidden, even though the value of the total contract was known. Why contractors were given extensions was exempted for "privacy reasons." Updated ATI legislation should balance individuals' right to privacy with the public's right to know, and side with the public's right to know unless there are specific circumstances otherwise.

2. Locating Budgets

In July 2013 I submitted an ATI request to a federal government department that will remain nameless. Again, a simple request: a tabulated list of that department's annual budgets from 1980-present.

Here's what I expected:

1980-1981: $x billion

1981-1982: $x billion

... And so on.

Yet they couldn't do it! They claimed they were under no obligation to "create new records" since, apparently, never before had they bothered to create a table that showed their department's historical budgets. But they would send me all of the encompassing federal government budgets for the timeframe requested, if I reimbursed them for an analyst to compile these budgets and send them to me over 35 hours.

When I refused, the department stated they would forward my request to Library and Archives Canada, where perhaps they instead could help. Commissioner Legault calls this "playing ping pong" with information requests. Updated ATI legislation should provide a remedy for people on the receiving end of ping pong.

To-date the request has not been fulfilled.

(Note: I knew the budgets were already available through the Treasury Board here and here. But those are the total budgets for each department and are not broken down into the sub-units of that department.)

3. The CBC

Canada's $1.1 billion state broadcaster is infamous for skirting ATI laws and doing the bare minimum to get by. Simple information, like how many vehicles the CBC owns or the salaries of star CBC personalities like David Suzuki or George Stroumboulopoulos, should be readily available for as long as the CBC remains a government-owned agency. They were given an 'F' grade by Commissioner Legault for incredibly poor response times, the second-worst for a federal department.

When they were asked how many vehicles they owned, they claimed one: a 2007 Ford 500. They were later embarrassed when a House of Commons committee revealed the CBC actually owned 728 vehicles.

Updated ATI legislation should provide punitive measures for departments that outright lie in information releases, or abuse the process because they think the information released will be embarrassing.

Canada's 2013 Throne Speech noted Canada's government would continue to find cost savings while focusing on transparency and accountability in our public service. One of the main areas of change should be our access to information laws.

Originally published in the Prince Arthur Herald.