Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault says a lack of leadership and resources is creating weaknesses in Canada's access to information system that need to be urgently addressed.
At a news conference in Ottawa to release her annual report to Parliament, Legault faulted successive governments for allowing the access to information system to fall behind the demands made by Canadians.
Her report found one federal institution — the RCMP — does not have enough staff to even acknowledge the receipt of access requests for six months, while in other cases response times to some requests can be as long as three years or more. Under the law, the government is obligated to acknowledge requests and respond within 30 days, or offer an explanation why more time is needed.
Legault also pointed to the fact that Parliament itself is not covered by the Access to Information Act nor is the federal court system.
"All together, these circumstances tell me in no uncertain terms that the integrity of the federal access to information program is at serious risk,” said Legault in a statement accompanying the release of her report.
Access to information, introduced by Parliament more than 30 years ago, requires federal departments and agencies to respond to requests for information. The regime was expanded in recent years to include Crown corporations, including the CBC.
But response times have risen to unacceptable levels in many cases, while technological changes in the way departments communicate have created new challenges for the system.
Lack of leadership
Legault said she will submit recommendations for reform later this fall. And, she said, she will be releasing details of an investigation into federal institutions' growing use of wireless text-based messages for internal communications — and whether those messages are properly being kept and released when requested.
"It is imperative that the access problems be fixed promptly and significantly. There is truly a need for leadership on the part of the government and the individual institutions," Legault told reporters.
"Unfortunately, yesterday's speech from the throne is silent on matters of transparency and accountability."
Asked where the leadership needs to come from, Legault said Treasury Board President Tony Clement is the minister responsible under the law and should be held accountable.
And deputy ministers are responsible for the response of federal departments and they report to the clerk of the Privy Council. Perhaps, she suggested, the response to access requests needs to be part of deputy ministers' performance reviews.
Legault said she has met with Clement to discuss the problems, but would not reveal details of their conversation.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus told The Canadian Press the commissioner's criticism is "some of the strongest language we've ever seen from a parliamentary officer."
"We're talking about denying access to Canadians about how money is being spent."
Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill Thursday, Clement said the government has faced a surge of information requests from ordinary Canadians and said the government's "open and transparent record" was second to none. He said the number of requests the government replied to last year went up by 27 per cent, to 54,000.
In an interview with Evan Solomon on CBC's Power & Politics Thursday, Legault agreed requests to the government are going up "significantly."
"The problem is, the government doesn't have the capacity to respond to these requests on time," she said. "That is not transparency."
"At some point, somebody has to take responsibility," Legault told Solomon. "I am not the first information commissioner that's been saying the system is failing. What I'm saying now is, failing dangerously. To the point where we're not actually meeting our legal obligations."
Trained personnel needed
Legault said the problems with information access did not originate with the current Conservative government — in fact, she said, her statistics show that the deterioration in response times started around 2000.
And while recent budget cuts and cuts to the federal public service are a concern, she said a larger problem is that there are not enough people qualified to handle requests.
"That is again a question that should come under the authority of the Treasury Board Secretariat — they need to train officials to be able to handle the requests," Legault said in French.
The delay in handling access to information requests is worsened when events like this summer's railway derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Que., generate a lot of interest and lead to an increase in requests. Legault said Transport Canada is saying it will take a year to respond to requests related to that event.
Legault said she also remains particularly concerned about the RCMP's response to access requests, noting that requesters are still being told only that the force will respond when it can. She said she has spoken to RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson but has not seen the force's plan to deal with the backlog, although the RCMP is in the process of adding staff to deal with it.
She said that when a department gets behind in access requests it can take up to three years to recover.