From coast to coast across Canada, reaction was fierce the day after publication of the access to information Report Cards by the federal Information Commissioner. For example, the Halifax daily The Chronicle Herald was quick to call the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) the “bad boy on the block.” According to a Globe and Mail columnist, the federal Information Commissioner, seeing the Department’s performance, even had to “create” a special off-the-charts “red alert” category for it. Greg Weston, of the daily Ottawa Sun, opined, “Not surprisingly … Foreign Affairs has also been home to some of the most egregious waste and mismanagement of taxpayers’ money anywhere in government.” In Le Devoir, Manon Cornelier writes that, literally, “[Translation] the situation was allowed to fester.” Across the country, the tone was similar, with DFAIT’s handling of the Access to Information Act meeting with harsh criticism and even disillusionment.
Over the course of the past decade, the Department earned few kudos from the federal Information Commissioner in her reports to Parliament. This year, despite obvious improvements, DFAIT received the worst grade given out since the inception of the “report cards,” which assess, on a comparative basis, the performance of a number of departments and agencies as regards access to information. The Information Commissioner summed up the situation in no uncertain terms: “Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada’s performance was so poor that the OIC could not rate it against its established criteria.”
Year after year, DFAIT’s difficulty in fulfilling its obligations under the 1982 Access to Information Act has been examined in many different ways by officials of the Department and the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada. The issue of DFAIT-led consultations with foreign governments and international organizations seeking their consent for the disclosure of documents requested under the Act has come into sharper focus in recent years. In her previous report, the Information Commissioner had noted a very significant increase in the number of access requests within the framework of this consultation procedure.
In actuality, what are the practical consequences of the use of this procedure? Is the Department beset with a monumental task, a sort of “mission impossible”? In what way are foreign consultations complicating the processing of access requests received by DFAIT? These concise questions are the foundation of this study, conducted at the request of the Information Commissioner.
This study will take a two-pronged approach, which, it is hoped, will help to narrow down the problem. First, it will seek to quantitatively measure the scope of the phenomenon of DFAIT’s foreign consultation process, and attempt to extrapolate its impact on the overall processing of access to information requests received by DFAIT. The findings of this exercise will then provide the basis for a comparison of how this aspect of access to information is handled in five other countries that also manage access to information legislation with similar requirements.
Besides contributing to an understanding of the issue of consultations with foreign governments and international organizations, this study will also attempt to propose possible steps for streamlining the process used by DFAIT in connection with one of the most complex constraints of the Access to Information Act. This endeavour clearly holds much promise, as the issue does not seem to have captured the attention of researchers or specialists, nor that of access to information oversight officials in countries where such a system of administrative transparency is in place.