Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. government breaking its own laws on access to info requests: commissioner

Information requests are longer and more complicated, and co-ordinators are being asked to do additional work on top of regular duties.

Donovan Molloy says staff overworked due to increased number and longer requests

Donovan Molloy, N.L.'s privacy commissioner, said the government is breaking its own rules with delays to resolving access to information requests. (Johnny Hodder/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador is breaking its own laws by exceeding the legal deadlines for responding to access to information (ATIPP) requests, the information and privacy commissioner says, but not much can be done to stop the problem.

"Access delayed often equates to access denied," commissioner Donovan Molloy told the St. John's Morning Show.

In a report released last week, Molloy said the government flouts the law based on the volume of work it takes to complete requests, something that would never be tolerated from average citizens. The result is long delays.

"If you submitted a request today you should have it by Aug. 10, 11th," Molloy said Monday.

"Based upon a couple of reports that we're talking about today you'll get it, on that standard, sometime in November ... I don't think I'm alone in feeling that that's not acceptable."

Number of information requests tripled

The report looked into a case where it took 86 business days for a response to an access to information request, when the law says that should happen within 20 business days.

Molloy said that isn't an isolated incident.

"It happens too often. Because the deadlines are in place, the public bodies have the opportunity to apply for extensions," he said.

If there are extraordinary circumstances surrounding the completion of a request, there are means to ask for and receive an extension to the 20-day limit provided by provincial law.

"There's all kinds of circumstances where it might lead you to be unable to comply," Molloy said. 

"But to simply fail to comply without following the procedures in the act, to simply say … we're going to miss deadlines, any instance of that is unacceptable in my view."

To simply say ... we're going to miss deadlines, any instance of that is unacceptable in my view.- Donovan Molloy

Molloy's report concerned the Department of Transportation and Works, and found that over the last fiscal year the department was late on approximately 15 per cent of deadlines and received extensions on another 15 per cent.

The delays speak to a large and persistent volume of work that means some co-ordinators simply cannot keep up, Molloy said.

The number of information requests has nearly tripled, he said, as is the size and complexity of those requests, but to his knowledge the staffing levels handling those requests has not shifted.

As well, the co-ordinators are also sometimes given additional work — for example, assembling the documents for the upcoming Muskrat Falls inquiry.

"It's not even like some of them can simply do their work. They're being asked to do other work," Molloy said.

"Some of them … when you talk to them privately, they talk about mental health, stress, problems with their family relationships, you know. It's really sad."

'Like comparing a tabby cat to a tiger'

A committee chaired by former premier Clyde Wells recommended in 2014 that the co-ordinators have considerable power to decide what should be redacted or included in access to information requests.

But Molloy said for some requests now there are multiple levels of review by executives.

Comparing the reality of the role to the intention set out in the report is "like comparing a tabby cat to a tiger."

Making government information more easily accessed would reduce that workload, he said.

"If we don't find ways to make government more open, open by default, such that a lot of the information that's being requested is made publicly available — posted online for any of us to go and look at it should we be so inclined — the workload is not going to decrease."

Molloy said the situation is not likely to change soon.

"I've been told by various government officials that you know, sure you can talk all you like about it, but is the public going to choose between ambulances or ATIP co-ordinators?"

Both the volume of ATIPP requests, and the size of the individual requests, is increasing, Donovan Molloy said. (CBC)

Molloy said he doesn't expect the government to divert resource from emergencies, but pointed out that it was the legislature that enacted the law itself.

"There's no means to compel them to meet the deadlines, other than writing a report. But you know those reports have been written in the past, and obviously they don't achieve the desired result."

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