Nova Scotia

Swamped information commissioner again chides McNeil government

Catherine Tully has singled out Nova Scotia government departments for being unco-operative in her latest and last report as the province's access-to-information and privacy watchdog.

Catherine Tully, in her final report, says departments least likely to fully follow recommendations

Catherine Tully, Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner, is shown in her Halifax office on Wednesday. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Catherine Tully has chosen to end her five years as Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner by, once again, taking the McNeil government to task for being unco-operative when it comes to requests for documents or information.

In her latest and last annual report, released Wednesday, Tully said provincial government departments continue to be "the least likely" of all public bodies to fully accept recommendations made her office.

In an interview in the cramped Halifax offices she shares with her staff of seven, Tully quantified the Nova Scotia government's reluctance to share information.

"They are 20 percent less likely than other public bodies, municipalities, police forces, health authorities to fully accept a recommendation," said Tully, whose tenure as commissioner ends in August.

One of the duties of her office is to handle appeals from people who have filed requests for records under freedom-of-information legislation but who have been denied by the public body. Investigators will first offer to mediate between the two sides, but the office can recommend that more information be released.

Provincial departments, Tully said, are the least likely to engage in informal resolution of appeals, a process where an investigator can say, "look we've got 60 days, let's have a conversation."

'Exponential increase' in appeal files

According to her report, 79 percent of review report recommendations were accepted in whole or in part by public bodies in 2018/2019.

When it came to informal mediation, provincial departments only resolved 66 per cent of their cases outside the formal process, while the resolution rate for all other public bodies was 88 percent.

That reluctance to hand over information has led to what the report called "an exponential increase" in new appeal files.

The office received more than 562 new complaints or requests for reviews last year. While staff were able to resolve 479 files, the backlog has continued to grow.

"When I started there was a six-year backlog," said Tully. "We got it down to one year, but there's been a steady increase in the new files and we simply have reached the maximum possible we can do with the staff we have.

"The backlog has been building again, which is very frustrating for me. But there's only so much you can do. And we are doing, we are working at 150 percent."

Office needs more people

Tully has repeatedly asked for a bigger budget to hire more people, but she said the government has so far refused.

As previous commissioners have done, Tully also called on the province to make her office accountable to the House of Assembly rather that the Justice Department. And she reiterated her plea to grant the office the power to make orders rather than simply recommend a course of action.

"The law isn't effective enough, the oversight isn't effective enough," said Tully. "Nova Scotia needs order-making power by the oversight body.

"We're falling behind and we're falling behind farther and farther behind other provinces and other countries."  

Successive governments of all political stripes have ignored calls to make the commissioner an officer of the Nova Scotia Legislature or to give the office more power, but Tully is optimistic the day will come when a government will act.

"It's going to take a push from the public," she said. "The public has to care about this as an issue.

"There also has to be courage on the part of politicians and the wisdom to understand this will strengthen our democracy."

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