Responding to public inquiries not a federal priority: survey

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Under ATIP, any Canadian can pay $ 5 and request information from the federal government in document form.

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So who cares about your right as a Canadian to obtain information from your federal government?

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Not the government, apparently.

Only one in five federal departments and agencies believe that access to taxpayer-funded information is an essential service to the public. The Treasury Board Secretariat, which oversees the process where the public can make a federal freedom of information or privacy request – commonly known as ATIP – conducted a survey on the subject last year.

The investigation (now released due to an access to information request) comes at a time when government responses to such requests have slowed dramatically, with ministries blaming COVID-19.

Many federal department employees lack the technical ability to perform work effectively outside of their offices, according to the survey. And it confirms what many ATIP researchers suspected: that access to information offices are processing fewer requests during the pandemic. A few have abandoned and stopped processing ATIP requests altogether.

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Under ATIP, any Canadian can pay $ 5 and request information from the federal government in document form. The law supposedly guarantees most responses in 30 days, but it typically takes four to six months – more during the pandemic. Some requests take years. A call makes the wait even longer.

These ATIP requests can reveal important information in the public interest.

For example, using the provincial version of such legislation, Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin obtained 2019 City of Ottawa records showing water leaks, poor quality concrete, and “recurring deficiencies. During the construction of the Rideau light rail station. Using federal ATIP law, he uncovered Mila Mulroney’s deal to sell her abandoned furniture to the National Capital Commission for $ 150,000 and found out of control spending in official residences.

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Citizen staff member David Pugliese used the ATIP process to show that the Department of National Defense was using the pandemic as an opportunity to practice propaganda techniques with the public. He also demonstrated, through ATIP, that DND withheld information from the families of soldiers who committed suicide.

In its own words, the new survey of 116 federal agencies shows that:

• “For 76 institutions, processing ATIP requests is NOT an essential service. (All capitals are used in the original document.)

• “For 24 institutions, processing ATIP requests IS an essential service.

• “For 16 institutions, processing ATIP requests is in part an essential service.

The 24 who consider it critical only represent 20.7% of the institutions questioned.

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The survey found that in 2020, 76 of these institutions had “limited capacity” to respond to ATIP requests from the public. Four institutions – not named – had completely given up on responding to these requests.

And most ministries – 71 of the 114 who answered this question – said they also considered giving advice on privacy rights not a critical service.

Agencies that responded to the survey are not identified.

“Not defining the provision of information to the public as an essential service is incredible,” said James Turk, who heads the Center for Free Expression at Ryerson University.

“This is not surprising for those of us who use access to information because of the problems we have – delays, refusals, calls that take forever,” he said. .

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Although this investigation was carried out at the start of the pandemic, Turk said there was “no indication” that public access has improved since.

The survey also found that 35 institutions are slowed down because their ATIP staff have “little or no network access” when working remotely.

Turk called this a “clear sign of serious management failure.”

“It’s very frustrating to hear,” said Franco Terrazzano, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “Having dealt with this process, I am not surprised. They don’t care, and it shows.

“It’s absolutely crazy how long it takes (to get responses to requests) at the federal level,” he said.

Terrazzano said he was seeking the same information from the federal government and cities, colleges and universities in Alberta – asking how many salary increases were granted during the pandemic. Albertans have all been helpful, but he’s not getting federal information, he said.

“We need a culture change.

“The access system… will never recover because no one in government has the will or desire to restore it,” said Rubin, who discovered hundreds of news items through ATIP requests.

“The truth has come out (in this investigation) that the system is not only broken, it will never be fixed. Because three-quarters or 80 percent don’t even really want to face it.

“The pandemic has really brought down what was a sad situation and a broken system even further. “

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