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Cuts put access-to-information gains at risk, watchdog warns

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault holds a news conference in Ottawa on May 31, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Response times for access-to-information requests have significantly improved, but recent budget cuts pose risks to the "fragile" system and some departments are still receiving a failing grade, the Information Commissioner says.

Suzanne Legault's new report, which takes a look at 18 institutions that were assessed by the commissioner in 2008-2009, and found that 13 of them had improved their service by 2010-11.

But Aboriginal Affairs, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Transport Canada did an "unsatisfactory" job of responding to access requests and have ignored her office's recommendations for improvement, Ms. Legault told reporters on Thursday.

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"They state staff turnover, increased workload and lack of resources as an explanation for their compliance level," she said.

Significant improvements were noted at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, National Defence and the Canadian International Development Agency.

Two institutions – the RCMP and the Canada Revenue Agency – received the same grade and were described as being "average" and "below average" respectively

Some departments are still taking years to get information to requesters. Although delays continue to plague the system, the Information Commissioner said she has seen a decrease in complaints about the speed of service.

Seven of the institutions studied managed to get more than 90 per cent of their responses to requests out the door on time, compared to just one in the same group three years earlier. In addition, 10 of the institutions significantly reduced their backlog of long-standing requests, and a number of the organizations completed requests received in 2010–2011 in times approaching 30 days or fewer.

While the overall results are "initially positive and encouraging," Ms. Legault said, "I remain concerned that the system as a whole is fragile. The cuts announced in the latest budget challenged all departments and institutions to scrutinize every corner of their operations to save money. We did hear concerns from the subject institutions about the potential impact of diminishing resources on their compliance with the [Access to Information]Act."

Some department say they "really don't know when they will respond [to access requests]because of cuts," she said. And unless the departments are getting average, below average or failing grades continue their efforts to improve their performance "and if cuts are made to these institutions, I think this will have an impact on the institutions and on the performance as a whole."

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Ms. Legault said it is critical to ensure all departments exercise vigorous oversight of the access to information system. She also credited the House of Commons standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics for its efforts to follow-upon recommendations contained in her previous reports.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the RCMP's grade in the Information Commissioner's report. This version has been corrected.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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