Access to information in Alberta approaching ‘crisis situation’: privacy commissioner

File: Alberta's information and privacy commissioner Jill Clayton. Global News

Access to information in Alberta is fast approaching a crisis situation, Alberta’s information and privacy commissioner says.

In her annual report released earlier this week, Jill Clayton slammed the way the government handles Freedom of Information and Protection (FOIP) requests, saying that Albertans are not receiving timely responses.

In some cases, they get no response at all.

“I do not believe I should have to order public bodies to comply with a clear obligation under the law,” Clayton wrote in her report.

The privacy commissioner said she doesn’t know how widespread the problem is, nor the reasons for the delays, because Service Alberta statistics on the operations of the FOIP Act have not been posted since 2012-13.

Because of this, Clayton said she also doesn’t know whether there’s been a significant increase in the number of FOIP requests received by public bodies.

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“While I have heard anecdotally that government departments have seen increasing numbers of access requests, I have no statistics on these numbers or on the response times over the past three fiscal years,” she outlined in her report.

A public body has 30 days to respond to a FOIP request, but can request an extension if certain criteria set out in the FOIP Act are met.

In 2015-16, Clayton found the number of extension requests went up to 101 from 63 in 2014-15 — a 60 per cent increase. Eighty-two per cent were made by provincial government ministries.

In many cases, Clayton said staff shortages were cited as reasons for not responding in time. The complexity of the request was noted in one case. But Clayton said “these are not sufficient enough reasons to not respond to applicants.”

“I am calling on this government, and public bodies in all sectors, to reverse the course we are on and to demonstrate to Albertans respect for the values of transparency, accountability, and the law.”

Clayton said this problem is not entirely new, as she talked about Alberta’s “flawed” access to information legislation in her 2012-13 report.

However, she did say the situation improved slightly in 2013-14 when the province disclosed government travel and hospitality expenses, as well as salary and severance information for senior government employees.

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The FOIP Act applies to 1,151 public bodies, including provincial government departments and agencies, boards and commissions and school boards.

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