Politics

Federal government eyes new tools to help Access to Information system recover after COVID-19

The federal government says it will look at whether investments in new technology could help clear any backlog of information requests that arises from a COVID-19 related bottleneck. 

Information commissioner says it could take years to clear backlog of access requests

The statue of Veritas (Truth) is shown in front of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa. The federal government says the novel coronavirus is hindering its ability to answer requests in a timely way. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The federal government says it will look at whether investments in new technology could help clear any backlog of information requests that arises from a COVID-19 related bottleneck. 

The pledge comes as the national information ombudsman warns the pandemic could deal a crippling blow to an already ailing transparency system. 

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay a $5 fee to ask for a wide range of federal files but the government says the novel coronavirus is hindering its ability to answer requests in a timely way. 

A coming parliamentary review of the access law will be an opportunity "to have an open exchange" on how new tools and approaches could help provide faster responses to requests, said Treasury Board Secretariat spokesman Martin Potvin. 

Potvin said federal agencies are "learning a lot" about the effects of COVID-19 on institutions' ability to handle requests, when most employees are working remotely without full access to documents and computer systems. 

Information commissioner Caroline Maynard recently predicted it could take years to recover from the expected delays caused by COVID-19 without prompt federal action. 

She wrote Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos to say the system was in a critical phase and "may soon be beyond repair" if ongoing and developing issues go unaddressed. 

"However, with the appropriate leadership and some bold choices, this difficult period could prove to be the catalyst for a true renewal of the access system sought by so many."  

Maynard and Duclos have scheduled a telephone call Tuesday to discuss her concerns. 

Backlogs could take years to clear: Maynard

Even before the pandemic and the widespread adoption of alternative work arrangements, chronic under-resourcing had created backlogs in both access requests and complaints that had grown year after year, Maynard said in her April 28 letter to Duclos. 

"My office anticipates that the delays we already see will only become worse the longer that alternative work arrangements are in place. Further, we anticipate that some Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) units will be completely overwhelmed when they resume their full duties."  

Given the scale of the pandemic response, institutions can anticipate a surge of access requests related to the government's handling of COVID-19, Maynard wrote. As a result, federal agencies should focus more on proactively disclosing records related to the virus, she recommended. 

"The government must make funds available to the system in order to cope with both the delays attributable to the pandemic itself and the impending surge," Maynard said in the letter. "It is important to take action now. Delays in appropriate resourcing will almost certainly result in backlogs from which it will take years to recover. Canadians expect and deserve a forward-looking and effective response." 

In addition to more money, the government should ensure Access to Information units have leaner processes, better infrastructure and new tools to support their work, she said. 

"Bringing institutions fully into the digital world could create significant efficiencies, not to mention increase the productivity of employees operating under alternative work arrangements."

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