By Dean Beeby, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA – The federal government continues to collect background information on individuals who file access-to-information requests, more than seven months after officials agreed to stop the practice.
An online service launched last year requires all requesters applying for documents under the Access to Information Act first to indicate whether they’re members of the media, business, academia or other categories.
The service, which to date has processed almost 30,000 electronic access-to-information requests, does not allow a requester to decline to identify her or his background â€” and failure to select a category halts the process in its tracks.
Last fall, Canada’s information watchdog secured a commitment from the Treasury Board, which is responsible for running the online service, to provide a “decline-to-identify” option.
The access law does not authorize the collection of background information from individual requesters, and a government-wide directive from 2010 requires institutions to process requests without regard to the identity of the person seeking records.
Treasury Board told the information commissioner last November the fix would likely be in place by March 31 this year, but the measure still has not been implemented even as other aspects of the online site have been regularly improved, based on user feedback.
A Treasury Board spokeswoman says the decline-to-identify option is now slated for June 15, indicating the delay was to co-ordinate with a coming change in the printed forms that a requester can also use to access government records for a standard $5 application fee.
“A delay was incurred in order to address a recommendation put forward by the (commissioner) that the online form align with the paper-based form,” Kelly James said in an email.
“This has taken longer than expected and therefore a decision has been made to introduce the ‘category of requester’ change online ahead of the modifications to the paper forms.”
Officials have said background data was collected merely to produce general statistics, required since 1985, on who uses the Access to Information Act. Paper forms in use since the Act came into force in 1983 have never asked a requester to identify their background.
The Conservative government has been criticized in the past for flagging some sensitive requests â€” typically from the news media or opposition MPs â€” for special scrutiny in ministers’ offices, delaying release or even improperly censoring material.
Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has warned against this “purple file” or “amberlighting” process, saying it increases the risk of political interference in a citizen’s quasi-constitutional right to acquire government documents.
Legault has previously documented several such instances of political interference by staff in the office of the Public Works minister, where material that should have been released was withheld illegally under the Act.
The RCMP examined one case highlighted by Legault’s investigators but declined to lay charges.
The so-called Request and Pay Online service, implemented April 9, 2013, allows a requester to file and pay for an access-to-information request electronically, avoiding the increasingly antiquated paper-form, paper-cheque and postage-stamp route. The process also saves the government the high cost of cashing cheques for small amounts.
Twenty-one government institutions now accept requests through the site, which was a commitment Canada made to an international body promoting government transparency, called the Open Government Partnership.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement has frequently cited Canada’s participation in the partnership, which also encourages public dissemination of data sets, as proof of the Harper government’s commitment to transparency.
An internal Treasury Board assessment of the new online service, prepared by the public servant in charge of the project, calls the initiative a “success.”
“From the perspective of users this service channel has been welcomed and clearly provides an improved method of access for Canadians,” Art Dunfee wrote in a Jan. 27 report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
But an independent review of the online service, required under the rules of the Open Government Partnership, is far less sanguine.
The February report by Mary Francoli, an assistant professor at Carleton University, interviewed stakeholders who called the service an “unambitious change” that merely brought Canada in line with existing services in Mexico, the United States and elsewhere.
Among users and others, her report said, the project “overwhelmingly was not seen as a change that contributed to improving integrity,” largely because it did not deal with growing delays or excessive censorship in the system.
Francoli’s report, commissioned and reviewed by Open Government Partnership experts in Washington, D.C., said the government must go much further, especially to resolve delays.
Dunfee’s report also acknowledged that the online service did nothing to resolve the problem of delays, which can keep a requester waiting months or even years for documents.
“Co-ordinators indicated that the (project) did not reduce the time required to respond to a request,” says his evaluation.
James said another 12 institutions are to be added to the online request service in the fall.
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