May 1, 2019 5:42 pm

Canada’s information commissioner says funding instability causing backlog of requests

Canada's Information Commissioner, Caroline Maynard, says the government's "stopgap approach" to funding is jeopardizing her efforts to clear a backlog of complaints from dissatisfied file-seekers.

Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada
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Canada’s information commissioner says the government’s “stopgap approach” to funding is jeopardizing her efforts to clear a backlog of complaints from dissatisfied file-seekers.

In her latest annual plan, information commissioner Caroline Maynard says it is impossible to set goals and maintain momentum due to the financial instability faced by her office.

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The information commissioner is responsible for handling complaints from Canadians who have difficulty obtaining government records under the Access to Information Act due to delays or the refusal to release files.

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Businesses, organizations, members of the public, media and academics filed over 106,000 requests with federal departments and agencies in 2017-18 for everything from correspondence and briefing notes to hospitality receipts and archival documents.

Agencies are supposed to answer requests within 30 days or provide valid reasons why more time is needed. Government records are considered open by default, but agencies can withhold information for a wide range of reasons, including national security, business confidentiality and legal privilege.

Maynard’s office is grappling with about 3,000 outstanding complaints from frustrated requesters. Many grievances take months or even years to settle.

Maynard says she goes from year to year preparing time-consuming requests for temporary funds “just to have enough staff to keep up with demand.”

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Her office received one-time funding for 2016-17 and 2017-18 to reduce the inventory of complaints. The Liberal government has earmarked another $3 million for this fiscal year to deal with the backlog, but has made no long-term commitments.

“This stopgap approach also results in higher costs to taxpayers and increases the risk that my office will not be able to deliver its planned results,” she says in the plan.

The commissioner says she will be “sparing no effort to finally secure adequate, stable and sustainable resources” for the duties her office is obliged to carry out. A new deputy commissioner will work on the resource issue as part of a larger overhaul of operations.

“However, any satisfactory solution requires the interest, commitment and action of the government.”

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Her workload will increase further with the expected passage this spring of federal legislation that makes several changes to the Access to Information Act. Among other things, the bill gives the commissioner new powers to make binding orders to departments to disclose records.

The commissioner will be seeking more money to meet the new requirements of the bill, said Natalie Bartlett, a spokeswoman for the commissioner.

Maynard will also continue to “request an increase in her permanent budget to ensure that complaints are completed in a timely manner and to reduce the number of complaints in our inventory,” Bartlett said Wednesday.

Farees Nathoo, a spokeswoman for Treasury Board President Joyce Murray, the minister primarily responsible for Access to Information, referred questions about the commissioner’s funding to Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s office.

Morneau spokesman Pierre-Olivier Herbert had no immediate answer on whether the government would provide Maynard with the funding she seeks.

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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