Information czar gives Canada Post, CBC low marks

Canada Post's ability to respond to individuals making requests for the Crown corporation's records under the Access to Information Act is, Canada's Information Commissioner said Thursday.
Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, pictured Jan. 5, 2011, issued a report Thursday on response to access to information requests for eight Crown corporations and federal institutions. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada Post's inability to respond to individuals making requests for the Crown corporation's records under the Access to Information Act merited a ruling that was off the chart, Canada's Information Commissioner said Thursday.

"The (Office of the Information Commissioner) is deeply concerned about Canada Post's performance and has issued a red alert for 2009-2010."

Information commissioner Suzanne Legault used her second report in as many years to deliver that verdict to Canada Post, one of eight institutions, including the CBC, that became the focus of this year's probe.

A red alert is even worse than a failing grade, and Canada Post earned the distinction because just under half the number of requests its access-to-information officers fielded in 2009-2010 resulted in complaints.

Legault noted that in far too many cases, requesters had to wait too long for information from Canada Post.

In its response to the information commissioner's report card, the Crown corporation acknowledged that it had to do a better job, and cited progress such as taking stronger measures to ensure its employees provide prompter service.

A news release the corporation posted on its website stated in part:

"Canada Post has committed to responding to ATI requests in a more timely manner by streamlining internal processes, reducing the backlog of requests and improving internal employee awareness of our obligations under the Act. We will also adopt industry best practices and designate resources to review and process backlogged documents."

The report also concluded too many records requested by the public must await the approval of too many managers. Legault has asked Canada Post to simplify its approval process.

In its response, the corporation stopped short of endorsing the recommendation, suggesting that a "level of review is necessary to manage the risks associated with its consumer sensitive information."

In other words, as a commercial Crown corporation it competes against other companies and can't release information that could reduce its competitive advantage.

CBC reduces backlog

The CBC has made a similar argument in justifying its decision to refrain from releasing records. It, too, fared poorly in the information commissioner's report card, receiving an F for "unsatisfactory" response. The CBC took an average of 158 days to complete a request, more than five times the length of time it should normally take, the report found.

The information commissioner also fielded 134 complaints against the CBC, "the most among institutions reviewed this year."

The report conceded that many of the CBC's problems stemmed from a backlog of cases from the previous year. The CBC reduced its backlog of access requests by 60 per cent in 2009-2010, the information commissioner's report card noted. "In addition, the average completion time for new requests in 2010 to date is 51 days, and delay complaints have diminished significantly recently."

In a response posted on its website, the CBC responded in part:

"This rating is disappointing for us, but not totally unexpected. We have openly acknowledged for some time now our difficulties in dealing with the initial large volume of requests we received when we became subject to the Act in September 2007. This initial caseload has had a long-term impact on our operations, an impact that is recognized by the Commissioner herself in her report, as are our recent improvements in responding to ATI requests."

In its formal response to the report's recommendations, the corporation outlined steps it says it has taken to improve its performance, including better training for staff handling the requests.

The CBC and Canada Post were among eight Crown corporation and agents of Parliament (including the Auditor General's office and the Information Commissioner's own office) the information commissioner investigated. In 2007, they joined the list of institutions covered by the Access to Information Act thanks to the Federal Accountability Act, the Harper government's first order of  business when it took power in 2006. The eight institutions were selected because they received the highest number of complaints – more than five – during the time they've been covered by the act.

Legault argued that part of the problem lies with the accountability act, which allowed the newly-covered institutions like Canada Post and the CBC to use certain exemptions to shield information considered to be of commercial value, for instance.

As a result, the report card notes, "while the new institutions… account for 2 per cent of all the access requests the federal government received in 2009-2010, they were subject to nearly 12 per cent of the complaints the (Commissioner) received that year. In addition, these institutions are releasing less information than are their federal counterparts, likely because the new exemptions and exclusions that allow or mandate them to refuse to release information."

Access law needs updating: Commissioner

Legault suggested in her news conference after tabling her report card that the law needs to be changed to make it more difficult for federal institutions to withhold information.

In the meantime, Legault says that the federal government as a whole must take access to information more seriously because the past several years have seen "a steady decline. And that is a trend that must be reversed."

That view was supported by the parliamentary committee on access to information, which released its most recent report earlier this month.

The report concluded: "The Access to Information Act is not a guideline or a policy which can be followed or not followed, with little consequence. It is a statute adopted by Parliament that has been recognized by the courts as having quasi-constitutional status. Therefore breaches of the Act should not be without consequence."

David McKie can be contacted at david_mckie@cbc.ca