Ottawa has not seized the opportunity during the pandemic to make government information more open and accessible to Canadians, the federal information commissioner has told parliamentarians.
Caroline Maynard said she has repeatedly said the right of citizens to government information cannot be suspended because of the pandemic.
“Government transparency is the foundation of a strong democracy and has never been more important than during this crisis,” she said February 21.
Maynard is in line with journalists, access to information officials, lawyers, journalists and politicians who have said information flowing from access or freedom of information requests – or FOIs – not only about COVID itself but also about the functioning of social and political systems – has been cut since the pandemic kicked into high gear in spring 2020.
“The FOI system is critical to the functioning of democracy,” B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy told Glacier Media in January. “It is not possible to hold government accountable if we don’t know what they’re doing.”
Maynard oversees the federal information access system as McEvoy does in B.C.
Currently, access requests are taking months and months longer to process, if indeed responses are received at all.
Glacier Media reporters have been repeatedly told FOI staffers have been working away from offices, a situation leaving them away from files needed to provide data. Some of Glacier’s requests, however, significantly predate the pandemic.
And, none of that’s not good enough for Maynard.
“We must collectively strive to produce an access to information system where access requests are processed in a timely manner without interruption, decisions are properly documented, and information is well-managed,” she said.
She said the government was being given an opportunity to make changes in the information system, “starting with the operating model of government and the culture that underpins it.”
And, she had outlined last April “ factors that were creating barriers to transparency and eroding government’s accountability to Canadians.”
It was time for the government to show leadership and take action, she said then.
“Now we find ourselves approaching one year since the start of the pandemic. Has the government seized the opportunity for change?” Maynard asked. “In my estimation, it has not. “
The system’s sluggishness isn’t just due to the pandemic.
While it’s true the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed Ottawa’s handling access to information requests, the country’s law enforcement agencies and defence department have often unable to meet legislated response requirements.
Further, Maynard said, Ottawa has postponed the launch of a new access to information online system and that a review of the access regime by now-former Treasury Board president Jean-Yves Duclos has been delayed to January 2021
Maynard said he met with Duclos, who stepped down due to illness February 23.
“I took the opportunity to remind him that the principles of openness and reasonable timeliness must be respected,” Maynard said.
“I also pointed out, as I have done more than once, that there were, and continue to be, concrete steps that can be taken immediately and which do not require any legislative change.”
Maynard said she has also reached out to the ministers overseeing the top 15 agencies dealing with information requests “to speak to them about the state of access within their institution and to discuss how, as leaders; they must be part of the solution.”
Maynard said the top four issues affecting Ottawa’s information transparency are:
• Inadequate leadership and a lack of clear guidelines on transparency and disclosure expectations;
• a pressing need to innovate and to allocate enough resources to the access regime;
• the necessity to properly document decisions and to efficiently manage institutions’ information, and;
• the declassification of records in a timely manner.