The federal government received a failing grade in a new national audit of freedom of information regimes across Canada.
The vast majority of federal departments under the Liberal government, which campaigned on a promise to increase information disclosure and transparency in Canada, failed to fulfill requests within the legal timeframe, the audit found.
“I was surprised at the depth of the how poor the federal performance in the audit was,” Fred Vallance-Jones, audit lead author and associate professor at University of King’s College, told DeSmog Canada. “That wasn’t expected.”
The report states, “this year, the audit has a special focus on the performance of the federal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and performance was even worse than in the latter years of the former Stephen Harper government.”
The national audit, which looks at freedom of information regimes federally, provincially and municipally, was conducted Vallance-Jones and freelance journalist Emily Kitagawa. The audit was prepared for and funded by News Media Canada and is the seventh report of its kind since 2008.
To avoid relying on government reporting and statistics, a team of researchers submitted a total of 428 requests to 24 federal departments, agencies and crown corporations as well as provincial and municipal offices over a period of four months.
At the federal level only a quarter of request were answered within the legal 30-day time limit and one-third of responses were still not fulfilled at the end of the audit timeframe. Two federal departments, the RCMP and the Departmetn of National Defense, provided no response to the requests whatsoever.
“When we were looking at the results, we were so surprised we actually sent emails to a bunch of departments asking, ‘what’s the status of the request,’ expecting them to say, ‘well, we sent our response to you, didn’t you get it?’ ”
Vallance-Jones said the requests, which are made available in the report, were standard and should not have led to delays in response.
Governments in Opposition, Not Power, Champion Access to Information Improvements
Vallance-Jones said he has seen many governments promise to improve the public’s access to information, but few deliver.
“Governments aren’t as enamoured with the idea of freeing information when they’re no longer the opposition,” he said.
“It’s not so shocking from that perspective. But it’s quite a contrast with the promises of government for sunny ways, greater transparency and accountability.”
Vallance-Jones added it’s worth noting the Harper government rode into power on a similar set of promises.
“They promised to change the system after the whole sponsorship scandal and did succeed in adding new crown corporations to the Act.”
“But the Conservatives back off most of the things they promised to do.”
The federal Liberals too have largely failed to move forward on their promised of open, transparent government, Vallance-Jones added.
Bill C-58, introduced by the Liberals in June proposes to amend the current Access to Information Act and Privacy Act, but has been called a step backwards by Canada’s Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault.
The bill notably stops short of extending much-needed order-making powers to the commissioner.
Currently, the commissioner can review complaints filed under the federal system, but does not have the authority to order federal departments to release withheld information.
Several agencies with ties to the federal government are also left outside Access to Information legislation, meaning they have no obligation to release information to the public.
The Liberal government has stopped charging fees for fulfilling access to information requests, aside from a baseline five-dollar processing fee but the bill reintroduces the possibility of new fees as well as the right to deny requests deemed too large.
The audit found feed highly problematic in other Canadian jurisdictions. The City of Windsor provided the auditors with a $1872.60 fee estimate for a routine request, while the Ontario Ministry of Health cashed a cheque for a request but failed to provide the information paid for.
Overall the audit found the federal government’s proposed “watered-down” reforms saying the Bill actually provides new avenues for agencies to deny the release of information.
Electronic Data. Because It’s 2017
The audit found the feds consistently failed to provide electronic, machine-readable documents.
The release of paper files or static PDFs that cannot be searched for keywords or data creates an “error-prone, complex process that many would not even attempt and which often yields poor results,” the audit found.
Despite requesting machine-readable records, the auditors found several federal departments did not comply.
“This is an ongoing problem,” Vallance-Jones said.
“Many places did a good job of this, but the feds did a particularly poor job of releasing machine-readable records.”
“This is the 21st century,” he said. “Journalists and the public need access to government data to do their jobs. But there is still a reluctance.”
Vallance-Jones added the audit found information released in electronic format is less likely to be released in full.
“Am I surprised? No. Am I disappointed that we’ve still not moved to a day where information is released electronically? Yes,” he said.
Systemic Problems of Secrecy Left Unaddressed
Not enough has been done to address the level of secrecy baked into the system, Vallance-Jones said.
“The federal government has done something but they haven’t addressed the systemic problems of exemptions, a lack of access to ministers’ offices and that kind of thing.”
“In a sense it’s an old baseline — we have a Westminster Parliamentary system which has always been founded on idea of cabinet secrecy and a civil service that is not heard from, that is silent.”
That lands Canadians in a situation where what is public is what the Minister says is public, Vallance-Jones said.
In addition, over the last several decades governments have become more sophisticated in how they restrict information.
“In general they have become better at turning the apparatus of government to private ends,” Vallane-Jones said, adding this was prevalent in the Harper government’s muzzling, reliance on spokespeople and long communications delays.
“You add that up, and it results in a lot of government secrecy.”