Access-to-information woes grow ever more absurd

Posted on in Governance Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – news/politics/OttawaNotebook
Posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2011.   Daniel Leblanc

Many people have grown tired of delays in the treatment of Access to Information requests. That frustration is set to grow as the government has now decided to sacrifice some files in a bid to put the best possible face on the massive backlog in the system.

More than two years ago, The Globe and Mail sent off an ATI request to obtain information about foreign trips made by a Conservative minister and members of his staff. The trips were reported on the proactive disclosure section of the department’s website, but the details raised a few questions that prompted the request for invoices and travel claims.

While the request was fairly barebones, it dragged on and on. The Globe recently decided to ask the department about the file’s status, given that the minister in question has been in the news of late.

A civil servant called back to explain that while the request has been worked on, it is far down in the queue because the department is focusing on more recent requests. While many people believe the system basically operates on a first-come-first-serve principle, the reality is far different.

What is happening, in fact, is that departments try to get as many requests as possible out the door within the legally mandated timeframe. That way, when the Office of the Information Commissioner releases its annual report, departments can claim they adequately processed a number of requests, and, hopefully, get a good grade and avoid embarrassment.

That process, however, leaves some files sitting in the system, because they have already been deemed to be failures and no amount of work can restore their status. “Once a file is late, it’s late. There is nothing that can change that,” the civil servant said. “A day late, a month late, a year late, it’s all the same. It’s late.”

In that context, ATI workers focus their efforts on “trying to save the files that they can.” The other files, meanwhile, are left in limbo for years.

The Globe is not disclosing the name of the civil servant, because it isn’t his job to talk to reporters on-the-record. In addition, his comments help to explain the current absurdity of the understaffed system.

“Most departments are scrambling to get people, and we don’t have the budget to hire people,” he said. “It’s the way the government operates. They allot money to priorities, and ATIP is not one of them.”

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