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Recurring Themes: Delays
As mentioned earlier, a good indicator of the overall effectiveness of the access to information process in government is the percentage of access requests made to government that are answered within the statutory deadlines. Regrettably, the government does not gather and report this key statistic. Consequently, it is only possible to offer here an impression based on the number of delay complaints received as compared with previous years, and on the results of the commissioner’s report card reviews of selected government institutions.
On that basis, it appears that the problem of delay remains a significant concern. This year, a higher percentage of complaints were delay complaints than was the case last year. Three of the institutions newly reviewed this year (Immigration and Refugee Board, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police) received failing grades, indicating an unacceptably high percentage of late responses to access requests. Five institutions that received failing grades last year again received "Fs" this year. More will be said about delays in the "Report Card" section. Suffice to say that the Information Commissioner will require the assistance of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, as well as the assistance of the President of the Treasury Board, if the persistent problem of delay is to be solved once and for all.
The Standing Committee made an important contribution last year to solving the problem of delay, when it called officials from the departments that had received failing grades on their report cards to explain themselves. This determination by the committee to publicly expose the problem served to focus the minds of senior officials on taking response times seriously.
The President of Treasury Board, too, has an important role to play in (1) ensuring that ATI functions in departments are properly resourced; (2) issuing best practices and offering consulting services to problem institutions; (3) maintaining and managing a "flying squad" of ATI professionals to respond to request surges in the system; (4) professionalizing ATI workers and ending expensive and inappropriate reliance upon contract workers; (5) collecting the statistics necessary to allow TBS (and the public) to identify problem areas as soon as possible; (6) enforcing good records management throughout government; (7) increasing pro-active disclosures of government information; and (8) educating managers and exempt staffers as to their ATI obligations.
Under the Liberal administration, the Presidents of the Treasury Board gave no meaningful priority to their obligations as designated minister responsible for the administration, across government, of the Access to Information Act. This statutory function of the President of Treasury Board must be given a greater priority and importance within TBS. The TBS’ ATI responsibility centre has an obligation to become a conscience for openness within government as a whole. It has, all too often, been in the service of the governments’ communications effort to explain away, and minimize, failures of compliance with the Access to Information Actthroughout the system.
Technology, too, continues to offer promise to help solve the problem of delay.
In the late 1990s, the Information Commissioner’s "Report Cards on Compliance with Response Deadlines under the Access to Information Act" recommended that institutions make use of the latest technologies to assist them in meeting their response time obligations under the Act.
One product in particular, ATIPimage, which was originally part of a package entitled ATIPsuite, was recommended for its potential in easing the work associated with processing records. At that time, the company which offered this product was known as MPR & Associates, and its pamphlet had the following to say about it:
"ATIPimage uses document imaging technology to achieve a paperless ATIP case review process that lets you and your staff focus on actual case management rather than clerical tasks. Electronically sever text, attach notes, apply and track sections of the Act, disclose documents and more with a click of the mouse. You can paginate and print out consultation and release packages automatically. Search and retrieve one specific document within thousands of pages instantly. A duplicity-checking feature ensures duplicate or similar documents are processed exactly the same way."
The vast majority of institutions now use technology – inclusive of imaging technologies – to assist them with the administrative work associated with the Access to Information Act. ATIPimage has undergone various upgrades, and is now known as AccessPro Redaction Imaging, which forms part of PrivaSoft’s Access Pro Suite. The software now has one additional timesaving feature: it allows electronic documents to be saved directly into the system.
Have imaging technologies helped to alleviate response times? The short answer is "no." Although these imaging technologies offer processing advantages, the clerical work associated with getting the information into the system can be extremely time-consuming. Of course, the length of time that it consumes is dependent on the volume of records involved, the volume of requests being processed within the institution, the number of scanners available, and the number of support staff available to assist with the work.
The preliminary clerical work includes preparation, scanning, and indexing. Preparation involves the removal of staples, clips, and/or pegs. If records are in rough condition, or of unusual size, they may need to be photocopied. Scanning can be a long process, particularly if the records sit in long queues waiting to be scanned. Indexing includes the manual data entry of myriad identifying information, such as the identification of document type (memo, letter…), date, "to" and "from", et cetera. Finally, either before or after the records are in electronic form, the records are triaged, meaning the records are reviewed for relevancy and duplicates are removed. If the preliminary processes add more than one week to the processing timelines, they effectively diminish or cancel out the benefits of electronic review processes.
Manual indexing is a major stumbling block in fully exploiting technology to reduce response times. Unfortunately, the problems associated with manual indexing are not easily resolved by institutions. Few institutions are in a position to hire a large contingent of clerical staff to do this tedious work. Yet, too often, this work is being performed by ATIP analysts or contractors, on a time-permitting basis. It takes away valuable time from their most significant work: reviewing and preparing records for release.
Imaging technologies can yet be improved to solve some of these remaining problems. We urge more work on developing improved text recognition capabilities. Indexing should become a seamless process, performed by the software, whereby key elements of records are recognized and captured as the records are scanned into the system.