Federal information requests delayed: watchog

Delays continue to plague the government's access to information system, eroding the rights of the public requesting information, the interim comissioner says.

Delays continue to plague the government's access-to-information system, eroding the rights of the public requesting information, the interim commissioner says.

"This right is at risk of being totally obliterated because delays threaten to render the entire access regime irrelevant in our current information economy," interim information commissioner Suzanne Legault wrote in a special report released Tuesday.

Suzanne Legault, Canada's interim information commissioner, releases a special report Tuesday criticizing government departments and agencies for reacting slowly to information requests. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

Access-to-information requests are supposed to be answered within 30 days, but many agencies take several months.

Legault gave the Privy Council Office a "D" for lagging behind a pack of other government bodies in 2009. The report found it takes the office, on average, 157 days to deal with requests.

Legault handed the Foreign Affairs Department a "red alert" — a grade below failure — for taking an average 163 days with requests.

Only Citizenship and Immigration Canada, at 34 days, came close to the 30-day time frame, she said.

More than half of the two dozen departments she studied got below-average marks. She said nearly half of the complaints (44 per cent) received by her office related to delays and time extensions. Three-quarters of these complaints were found to have merit.

"There's a constant decline year over year," she said. "Length of extensions is getting longer. The length of consultations is getting longer

Legault urged departments and agencies to take "immediate steps" to curb the problem.

But there is no penalty when access deadlines are missed, so imposing legislated timelines on departments would "make a big difference," she said.

"The fact that there's no real time limit is a huge issue."

Guy Giorno, chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said the government expects full compliance with the Access to Information Act.

Existing rules for political staff should prevent them from interfering in the decisions of non-partisan departmental staff about the release of documents, Giorno testified before the Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics.

Giorno said each individual minister is responsible for ensuring staff comply with the  rules and for dealing with non-compliance issues.

"The time frame for compliance is an issue . . . it's obviously something of concern," he said.

With files from The Canadian Press