What have our governments been up to lately? According to a recent study, it is not always easy to find out, with the federal government often responding with a glacial slowness to requests for information.
Last week, Newspapers Canada, a joint initiative of the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Canadian Community Newspapers Association, released its 9th annual National Freedom of Information Audit report:
“The 2015 FOI audit sent almost 450 access requests to federal government departments and crown corporations, ministries, departments and agencies in all provinces and territories, and to municipalities and police forces. As in previous audits, identical requests were sent to all government bodies at each level of government, allowing their responses to be compared on how fast they responded, how much information they released and the fees they charged. This year, each government body also received its own unique request. These were on specific and topical issues.”
“The results showed familiar, entrenched patterns, and some new ones. If you want to obtain information from Canada’s cities, you can expect reasonably speedy service. Provinces, on average, take a little longer, and the federal government trails far behind. You should be prepared to wait a long time, and have more information blacked out, if you file a request under the Access to Information Act. Federal agencies, on average, twice as long to reply as the municipalities to answer requests, and that doesn’t include the requests that had not had a reply by the end of the audit.”
“But speed is only part of the picture. The audit also looked at how much information was released, and found the government bodies most open with information were Halifax and Moncton (though the Moncton total doesn’t include police requests) and the least open were, for varying reasons, the Province of Quebec, and Nunavut. The federal government was toward the back of the pack.”
The Association was particularly harsh in its comments about the federal government’s access to information practices:
“There is no doubt that the federal access system is critically sick. Departments can take months to answer requests, even though the normal time from start to finish is supposed to be 30 days or fewer. Departments routinely disregard requests to provide data in machine-readable formats. And departments ask for clarifications on minor points in requests, warning that requests will be ‘deemed abandoned’ if answers are not received.”
“The glacial slowness of the federal access system was perhaps best exemplified by the more than two months it took for Environment Canada to release a list of the department’s Twitter user names. That compared to nine provincial and municipal bodies that released the same information in a day or less …”
“Indeed, the federal government routinely takes longer to process requests than provincial and municipal governments asked for exactly the same information.”
As in previous audits, the Association highlighted a few darts (negative results) and laurels:
- Environment Canada for taking two months to provide a list of Twitter user names
- Canada Post for refusing all access to records created in the past two years dealing with the impact of the conversion from home-delivery to community mailboxes on elderly Canadians and Canadians with disabilities. Governments at all levels for refusing to provide electronic records in machine-readable formats, rendering data difficult to use.
- Police forces across Canada for, as a group, their reluctance to release information in the audit. Winnipeg police in particular for suggesting it would take years to respond to a request for police calls data, and Toronto police, for extending the time to respond to the same request by nine months.
- P.E.I. and Saskatchewan for continuing to exclude municipal police forces from their access regimes, and P.E.I. for being the only province to shield municipal governments from this important accountability information.
- Newfoundland and Labrador for removing all application fees, and drastically paring back other fees, as part of an overhaul of its access regime.
- Halifax and Moncton for earning a grade of A for both speed of response and completeness of disclosure
- Quebec City police for being the only police force in the country to fully release an electronic file of officers, their ranks and their salary ranges.
- Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and PEI for releasing all of the requests for data in full, in machine readable formats.