Tories kill information registry
TheStar.com – Canada – Tories kill information registry
May 02, 2008. Dean Beeby, THE CANADIAN PRESS
OTTAWAâ€“The federal Conservatives have quietly killed a giant information registry that was used by lawyers, academics, journalists and ordinary citizens to hold government accountable.
The registry, created in 1989, is an electronic list of every request filed to all federal departments and agencies under the Access to Information Act.
Known as CAIRS, for Co-ordination of Access to Information Requests System, the database allowed ordinary citizens to identify millions of pages of once-secret documents that became public through individual freedom-of-information requests over many years.
But in a notice last week to civil servants on the Treasury Board website, officials posted an innocuous obituary: effective April 1, 2008, “the requirement to update CAIRS is no longer in effect.”
A spokesman for Treasury Board confirmed Friday that the system is being killed because “extensive” consultations showed it was not valued by government departments.
The consultations concluded “the valuable resources currently being used to maintain CAIRS would be better used in the collection and analysis of improved statistical reporting,” said Robert Makichuk.
Public Works, which has operated the database, spent $166,000 improving it in 2001. As recently as 2003 federal officials had been working on a publicly accessible, online version.
Monthly paper lists have also been made available since the 1990s for public consultation at a central federal office in Ottawa.
In the meantime, a Canadian academic put the database on his website and opened it to public use, allowing citizens to quickly search thousands of requests for key words.
Alasdair Roberts, a political scientist at Syracuse University in New York, built a version of the database by requesting the CAIRS electronic records through an Access to Information Act request, and updated the site monthly.
CBC journalist David McKie took over the work in 2006 using another publicly accessible website (http://www.onlinedemocracy.ca).
Users searching key words cannot access the documents themselves, only the wording of the original access-to-information request, the date, the department, a file number, and general information about the requester, whether media, business, academic or other.
But by citing that file number, a citizen can approach the appropriate department and request copies of the already released documents.
CAIRS was originally designed as an internal government tool to manage the flow of often embarrassing information. Particularly sensitive requests from news media or opposition politicians would often be red-flagged for special handling that frequently delayed release.
But requesters soon began to mine the database to discover obscure documents, fine-tune the phrasing on new requests, and even to do statistical studies â€“ effectively turning the tool against government.
If departments and agencies are no longer required to update the CAIRS database with new requests, its value as an accountability tool will quickly diminish, critics said.
“This is terrible and I consider this to be yet one more step in making records less accessible,” said Michel Drapeau, a lawyer, frequent user and co-author of a standard reference work on access law.
“To do this now after the CAIRS’ usefulness has been proven over and over again is indicative of the extent to which government will go to stifle the access regime.”
New Democrat MP Dawn Black, whose office uses the database regularly, condemned the Tories for shutting down the system.
“It’s another example of the Harper government’s talk about accountability and transparency â€“ they talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”
The Conservative government has a mixed record in the area of freedom of information. The Federal Accountability Act broadened the access legislation to cover new entities, such as the CBC, Via Rail, Canada Post and even the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, who’s the ombudsman for the system.
At the same time, long delays for responses, along with heavy censorship of documents, have become endemic.
The number of complaints received by the information commissioner in 2007-2008, for example, soared to 2,387 â€“ more than 1,000 higher than the previous year. The level is the second-highest on record, next to the 2,821 received in 1988 â€“ 2,242 of those from a single complainant.