Canada's archaic access-to-information system is about to establish a toehold in the online world.
The Harper government plans a pilot project early next year to allow ordinary citizens and others to request internal documents under the Access to Information Act via the internet.
The one-stop online portal would route each request to the proper department, allow fees to be paid electronically, and permit detailed tracking of the processing of the file.
The initiative will begin with just three departments, but is to include most federal agencies and institutions over the next three to four years.
Canada's access-to-information legislation was born in 1982, before the age of the internet, and the current system largely reflects a bygone era of paper cheques and forms, envelopes and postage stamps.
U.S. and Mexico have freedom-of-information portals
For years, critics have pressed the federal government to haul the creaking system into the digital world to save money and reduce growing backlogs, pointing to Mexico and the United States as examples.
Mexico already has a government-wide freedom-of-information portal, and the United States launched its own pilot project last week, called FOIAonline.
Canada's version will be launched early next year, comprising Citizenship and Immigration, Shared Services Canada and the Treasury Board Secretariat, the federal agency responsible for setting access-to-information standards and policies across all government.
Citizenship and Immigration is the anchor department for the pilot because it already has basic access-to-information online systems in place, such as the ability to receive credit-card payments electronically.
The new portal will incorporate the so-called receiver general buy button, an existing payment regime that allows private-sector clients to pay online for federal goods and services using credit cards and the Interac payment system.
The pilot is to run until next summer and will also allow one-stop applications under the Privacy Act, said Treasury Board spokeswoman Theresa Knowles.
"Given their expertise and experience with online payments, CIC (Citizenship and Immigration) has been selected to host the software that will allow requester to submit Access to Information and Privacy requests online and pay for them through the receiver general's buy button, using a secure link and an appropriate credit card," Knowles said.
And starting in 2014, Treasury Board plans to create a publicly searchable online database of released access-to-information request summaries from every department and agency.
The database will replace an earlier information registry, known as CAIRS, that the Harper government killed in early 2008. As of this year, departments and Crown corporations have been required to post online monthly lists of completed access-to-information requests but there has been no central, searchable repository.
Canada's information commissioner, who acts as an ombudsman for frustrated requesters, has pressed the Harper government to revive a publicly searchable request database.
Suzanne Legault also wrote a joint letter last January with her fellow commissioners in the provinces and territories calling on Treasury Board President Tony Clement to create a central access portal, similar to Mexico's.
"Currently federal institutions employ various methods, ranging from manual to stand-alone systems, to process access to information requests," says the Jan. 19 letter.
"The capacity to deal efficiently with electronic records and conduct effective searches of requests and responses is limited and impedes the ability to publicly disseminate the information in a timely manner."
Legault says the pilot project has been too long in coming.
'The implementation of an online portal to facilitate and improve the process of making access-to-information requests, as well as the dissemination of government information, is long overdue.' —Information commissioner Suzanne Legault
"Canadians are increasingly using the internet to access government services and to make payments," she said in an email to The Canadian Press last week.
"The implementation of an online portal to facilitate and improve the process of making access-to-information requests, as well as the dissemination of government information, is long overdue."
Michael Dagg, an Ottawa businessman who files about 500 requests each year for clients, welcomed the portal because it will "impose a standardized processing procedure across multiple departments."
"It's a step in the right direction, and I support that," he said in an interview. "It should simplify the process for average users."
The newly launched FOIAonline portal in the United States, involving six agencies, is estimated to cost about US$1.3 million with annual operating costs of up to US$750,000.
But long-term savings are projected at US$200 million over five years once every department signs up.
The Treasury Board declined to release cost estimates for the new Canadian portal.
"Costs are still being assessed but are considered reasonable for a pilot of this nature," Knowles said.
The current access-to-information system cost the federal government $52.6 million to administer in 2010-2011.
Requesters must pay an initial application fee of $5, and some additional charges for photocopies and search time. The federal government says it recoups an average of only $8 for each request, while administration costs average about $1,300 per request.
Canada, once considered a global leader in freedom of information, has since become a laggard, with one 2011 study ranking the country 40th among 89 nations with similar transparency laws.