Government's online information access plan falls short

Federal institutions have until January 31 to start posting online summaries of their access-to-information releases. But the system could be even better — and almost was, writes David McKie.

Deadline looms for federal instiutions to post access to information summaries online

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, seen addressing a conference on technology and government in Ottawa in October, has set a Jan. 31 deadline for institutions covered by Access to Information to post summaries online. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

If you want to know about the steps the department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada has taken to combat allegedly crooked consultants, you can read summaries on its website of the records it has released through the Access to Information Act.

If you want to learn about the steps that Environment Canada has taken — or not taken — to deal with pollution from the oil sands, you won’t find similar summaries on the department’s website.

Environment Canada has until January 31 to post them.

On that date, federal departments and agencies covered by the Access to Information act must post monthly summaries that detail the documents, databases and email correspondence they’ve released under the act, according to new Treasury Board guidelines aimed at "open government."

Upon reading the summaries, users can ask for the full records by e-mailing or writing the office that keeps the information.

Whether Environment Canada and most of the institutions covered by the law meet the Treasury Board’s end-of-month deadline is anyone’s guess. To date, only a fraction of the institutions covered by the act have met made the deadline.

With each passing day, the list of compliant institutions grows slightly longer, but at this pace, it's hard to see how that deadline will be met.

From studying the information posted by the institutions that have complied so far, it's clear there are wild inconsistencies that seem incompatible with the Treasury Board’s open government policy.

For instance, while the department of National Defence (one of the first institutions to provide public access to summaries years before the official policy came into place) posts summaries dating back to 2006, Correctional Services Canada’s summaries only go back to 2009, and Public Safety to November 2011.

The inconsistencies don’t end there. Some departments neglect to reveal the number of records, if any, that have been disclosed.

Why is that important?

Because if nothing has been released, then it’s pointless to ask for the records identified by the summary in question.

However, perhaps the largest problem is the lack of a central search function. That is, a way for users to search several departments at once using a search engine with advanced functions.

So, for instance, if you wanted to know about Afghan detainees, it’s not enough just to search National Defence’s website, you’d have to search Foreign Affairs (which has yet to post summaries ) and the Privy Council Office (it, too, has yet to post its summaries) and Justice Canada (ditto!). Searching each department is time-consuming.

Make no mistake, this system is better than not posting summaries at all. However, it could have been so much better.

The frustration with the inadequacy of this system deepens because the Treasury Board, the department responsible for administering the act, suggested a more robust service back in June of 2001.

According to a 2004 document CBC News obtained through Access to Information, the Treasury Board recognized citizens should have access to summaries in a centralized, searchable database. But just before the system was ready to go public, the Treasury Board pulled the plug, opting to keep it in-house.

The database with the funny name

That database bore an awkward title, the Coordination of Access to Information Requests System, or CAIRS for short, and was initiated by the Chretien Liberal government in 1999.

The idea was that if the departments covered by the act back then could upload their requests to a centralized database, they’d be able to share information to make the process run more smoothly. For instance, access-to-information coordinators could determine if their counterparts in other departments were handling similar requests, thus avoiding duplication.

Critics saw something more nefarious at hand. They suggested CAIRS was a way for the government to centralize access to information in order to hide documents, not share them. And they may have had a point.

But when the system was ready to go, the Treasury Board changed its mind, citing concerns with the Official Languages Act and that some summaries might contain personal information.

The argument for it to be made public continued. A special task force recommended just that in 2002, and in July 2004, the Information Commissioner recommended a "a central location to access to information on ATI requests across government" in a draft report to the Treasury Board that CBC News obtained through the Access to Information.

As a matter of fact, the public did have access to a central database of these summaries, but it had nothing to do with the government.

CAIRS goes public

Alasdair Roberts, an access expert who taught at Queens University in Kingston and is now at Boston's Suffolk University Law School, provided the CAIRS’ summaries in a searchable, online database until he no longer had time to maintain it. Rather than see it shut down and be unavailable to the users who included journalists, academics and federal politicians, I agreed to rebuild the database and keep it going.

I posted the summaries in a database located on a server provided by Loyalist College near Belleville, Ont.

However, in the spring of 2008, the Conservative government, citing cost, among other reasons, killed CAIRS itself, making it virtually impossible to maintain the public database. (I still maintain the CAIRS summaries, up to 2008, on a different server.)

There were two complaints to the Information Commissioner’s office about the government’s decision.

As part of her 2010 investigation, Suzanne Legault’s office recommended that, at the very least, the government should provide an alternative to CAIRS; namely, summaries from each institution covered by the act (a greater number after the Conservative government passed the Accountability Act) posted online in a central, searchable database.

Earlier this month, Treasury Board president Tony Clement promised a more open government. He could start by taking the next step and ensuring that online summaries of access-to-information requests are easily searchable.

In the meantime, the clock continues to tick towards that Jan. 31 deadline, with little indication that most institutions covered by the act will meet the target.

So what happens if they miss it?

Attempts to obtain a comment from the Treasury Board were unsuccessful.

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