The RCMP has reversed course after a policy forcing officers to use the Access to Information Act to get their own personnel and medical information backfired badly. 

The RCMP has been flooded with so many new ATI requests over the past few years that it now has a backlog of about 3,250 unanswered files that have gone past their legislated deadlines, with the number growing weekly.

Under the federal act, all departments must respond to requests within 30 days or give themselves an extended deadline for more difficult files. When the deadlines are missed, the files are known as "deemed refusals."

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault

So far in 2017-2018, there have been a record 331 complaints about the RCMP to Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

RCMP officers who have filed requests about themselves, without word of a response, have told CBC News they're frustrated by delays that make sorting out their personnel issues, like promotions or salary increases, all but impossible.

"In order to obtain a copy of your medical file, you will need to send an official request to [ATI] branch in Ottawa," says a typical email from an HR manager, this one from 2016 in British Columbia.

"The form is attached below. We cannot process these forms."

Officers spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity, out of concern their matters might be treated differently because of the disclosures.

Triggers complaints

The massive backlog has also triggered a record number of complaints about the RCMP to the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, which formally investigates alleged breaches of the act.

So far this fiscal year, which ends March 31, there have been at least 331 formal complaints about the RCMP's poor performance, easily surpassing the record 274 complaints from 2016-2017, said Natalie Bartlett, spokesperson for the commissioner.

Partly as a response to the backlog crisis, the RCMP recently issued notices saying members no longer have to go through the Access to Information Act and are to be given routine access to their own medical and personnel files.

"Every effort is to be made to keep the time lapse between request and provision [of the information] to a minimum," Stephen White, assistant commissioner for human resources, said in an internal notice late last year.

'We hope to get to a place where we will not have backlogs anymore.' - RCMP spokesperson 

Lisa-Marie Inman, the RCMP's acting chief of strategic policy and planning, says the change in policy is part of a larger strategy to dig out from the avalanche of backlogged requests from RCMP members, news media, academics and others.

"Our numbers are a bit off the charts," she said in an interview with CBC News. "We hope to get to a place where we will not have backlogs anymore."

The RCMP's access-to-information and privacy office employs 65 people, most of them civilians; only 22 actually review ATI requests. The rest are support staff, including clerks who scan paper documents into electronic form all day long. More than 1.3 million such pages were processed last year.

Even though almost all RCMP documents requested under the Access to Information Act are already in digital form, the RCMP requires they be printed on paper and shipped to the access and privacy office in Ottawa to be scanned back into electronic form — a major bottleneck.

Inman says to try to speed up the processing, the RCMP has purchased high-speed scanning machines for its regions, and will let them locally print and scan the documents, which can then be sent electronically to Ottawa for vetting before they are released.

Turnover a problem

Inman says staff turnover is another problem, with 65 per cent of employees in the unit having left in the past three years. The department is now considering hiring outside ATI experts as consultants to dig out from the backlog.

New software solutions are being tried, as is a more focused, consistent training program for new staff, and a triage system to review new requests for clarity and proper handling, she added.

Inman noted that the RCMP has records in about 750 locations across the country, and many documents are complex and sensitive police records, making processing them under the act particularly problematic.

The problem of "deemed refusals" has been growing across the federal government. In 2016-2017, there were a total of 16,780 overdue requests in all departments â€” almost double the 8,405 in 2014-2015.


The Canada Border Services Agency has also seen a rise in its backlog of unanswered Access to Information requests, now at around 1,500 cases. (CBC)

The Toronto Star recently reported on major ATI backlogs at the Canada Border Services Agency, about 1,500 files in 2016-2017. Those delayed files have a direct impact on people who require CBSA documents to support their residency claims and citizenship applications, estimated to be about half of all CBSA requesters.

The Liberal government's Bill C-58, now in the Senate, is intended to overhaul the Access to Information Act, including provisions to require the proactive publication of documents in ministers' offices.

The proposed legislation has come under fire from a broad range of critics, including Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, who said it would be a "regression of existing rights."

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter