Access to information and foreign consultations
The question of consultations with foreign governments and international organizations is part of the overall issue of implementation of the Access to Information Act. It is, in fact, one of the problems that has been denounced in recent years by both the Information Commissioner and outside specialists. Globally, the Department is having serious difficulty meeting the requirements of the Act. For example, in 2008–09, the Department posted the poorest performance of any federal entity, with 163 days being the average time it took to complete access requests.
The decision by the Information Commissioner not to assign a grade to DFAIT for 2008–09 given the magnitude of the delays in responding to access requests is a telling indication of the challenges facing the Department’s Access to Information and Privacy Protection Division. Over the last 10 years, 2002 was the only time when DFAIT received a satisfactory grade – a “B.”
DFAIT has to deal with a reality that makes it unique within the federal government. The rotation of career diplomats means that the Access to Information and Privacy Protection Division cannot count on specialists on a permanent or long-term basis. It is also in the “eye of the storm” when Canada is directly involved in “hot button,” major international files. The military intervention in Afghanistan has sparked Canadians’ interest and concern and has led to a significant increase in requests for documents that would help to shed light on the meaning of the conflict. More specifically, according to its own data, the Department saw an average annual increase of 15.5% in access requests over the period from 2004 to the end of 2009.
The Department has made various efforts to try to improve its performance and better meet Canadians’ expectations. It recently gave Andrée Delagrave the mandate to review the situation. Ms. Delagrave has estimated that more than 40 new positions would need to be created to rectify the situation. Moreover, DFAIT is now in a race against time to eliminate the accumulated backlog in the processing of access requests, having hired some 10 contract staff.
Besides the increased number of access requests received by the Department, in justifying her call for additional funding, Ms. Delagrave cites the Department’s unique mandate in the processing of requests for access to documents: it has to take charge of the requests that are made to various departments and agencies across the federal government and concern Canada’s international relations.
The growth in this type of foreign consultations has been cited on a few occasions in the Department’s reports to Parliament and singled out by the Information Commissioner. “Consultation requests have increased significantly in recent years, to the point that they outnumber access requests,” writes the Commissioner in her report entitled Out of Time, released in spring 2010. In its Report to Parliament submitted that same spring in compliance with the Access to Information Act, DFAIT is clear on the matter: “In fact, last year DFAIT processed even more requests for ATI consultations from OGDs (1039) than ATI requests for access to records under its control (665). This important role continues to put another heavy burden on the ATIP Division’s limited resources.”
The problems posed by these consultations and especially the backlogs incurred under this procedure tend to explain in part the Department’s poor performance in administering the Access to Information Act. Both are contributing to the discontent of the departments and agencies that have to defer to DFAIT for all access requests for documents that could affect Canada’s international relations. The final blame for these backlogs has to be borne by these departments and agencies, which are then chastised by the public and have to include these backlogs in their annual performance results.