Nova Scotia information and privacy watchdog cites concerning trends in government performance

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WATCH: In her final report as Nova Scotia’s information and privacy commissioner, Catherine Tully points to the massive changes in how personal information is stored as a main factor in making cybersecurity and privacy a top priority for government. Jeremy Keefe reports – Jun 5, 2019

Nova Scotia’s information and privacy commissioner released the 2018-2019 annual report on Wednesday, which highlights a number of concerning trends in Nova Scotia.

The report also details the “extraordinary” increase in the caseload of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the challenges it faces with very limited resources.

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Commissioner Catherine Tully says in the report there were some highlights for the office, including that an increased number of Nova Scotians attended OIPC training events, stating that more than 1,100 Nova Scotians attended.

There was also 100 per cent compliance with informal recommendations from public bodies, and that 79 per cent of review report recommendations were accepted in whole or in part by them.

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But government departments continue to be the least likely of all public bodies to fully accept the commissioner’s recommendations, says the report.

Government is taking longer to process access-to-information requests

In 2018/2019, government departments fully accepted only 40 per cent of recommendations compared with other public bodies, municipal bodies and health custodians which fully accepted 62 per cent of recommendations, according to the report.

Government departments are also the least likely to agree to an informal resolution of an access review. The overall informal resolution rate was just 81 per cent resolving only 66 per cent of cases, compared to 88 per cent by all other public bodies, municipal bodies and health custodians.

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Tully also says there are some worrying signs that the government is taking longer to process access-to-information requests.

According to the report, there has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of applications refused by the government and which were filed over the last year.

In an effort to promote openness and accountability, the OIPC began working on a new guidance series focused on the duty to assist aimed at public bodies and municipalities.

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The first guide suggests that the best way to satisfy the duty to assist is to meaningfully communicate with the applicant and the second guide states that the public body/municipality should conduct an adequate search for records.

If the responsive record includes third-party information, the third guide suggests that part of meeting the duty to assist includes providing timely notice to third parties in accordance with the steps and timelines set out in the law.

Working at and over capacity

The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has resolved over 479 files in 2018/2019, compared to 133 files in 2013.

Tully said in the report that it is a four-fold increase in file resolutions with only one new position added to the office in the past five years.

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“While we exponentially increased the number of matters, we resolved in each of the past five years, the number of new matters coming into this office has also increased,” Tully stated in the report.

She said the office cannot reduce the backlog pile while keeping up with the increase of new files. The office had the backlog down to just one year, but it is now growing again and will likely reach three years in the near future.

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The future of access and privacy rights in Nova Scotia depends on us keeping pace with technology and ensuring that our rights are subject to meaningful and effective oversight,” said Tully.

“It will take courage and determination on the part of politicians and likely a push from the public to bring our access and privacy laws into the 21st century,” she added.

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