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The Coordination of Access to Information Requests System (CAIRS)
The Coordination of Access to Information Requests System (CAIRS) was created in 1989 to facilitate the identification and coordination of access to information requests raising interdepartmental issues or involving significant legal or policy issues. CAIRS was a central registry containing the text of requests received by federal institutions covered by the Access to Information Act (Act). Over time, even though CAIRS was not publicly available, external users recognized the usefulness of the information contained in the system and started making access requests for the list of requests.
During 2007, the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) was consulted about the future of the system as part of the Treasury Board Secretariat’s (TBS) policy renewal initiative pertaining to access to information. In October 2007, we recommended to TBS that CAIRS be maintained until an alternative could be found.
In April 2008, TBS announced that that it was discontinuing the requirement to update CAIRS, which effectively rendered the system obsolete. We received two complaints regarding this decision. At the time the investigation was initiated, TBS had not proposed an alternative to CAIRS.
During the course of the investigation, the OIC consulted with a number of stakeholders and obtained representations from them. The representations indicated that the information in CAIRS provided real value to access requesters and the public in general. The lack of a centralized source of information makes the search process more time consuming, inefficient and costly. It was recommended that any alternate system should allow for quick, inexpensive and easy searches of current and previous requests. Treasury Board representations highlighted various factors that were considered prior to the decision to abolish the requirement to update CAIRS. Key elements included the fact that the system was of limited value to federal institutions and that the information was still available directly from these institutions.
Although CAIRS was not originally designed for public use, the information contained in the database generates substantial and continued public interest. This has been confirmed by the creation of the non-governmental Online Democracy and CAIRS.info websites. We believe that advances in technology allow federal institutions to go much further in providing access to their information.
Abolishing the requirement to update the information contained in CAIRS effectively eliminated a centralized source of information on access requests received by federal institutions. However, since the information is still available from institutions, the Office was unable to conclude that the policy change represented a denial of access under the Act.
To assist in resolving the matter and to facilitate the dissemination of government information, we recommended to the President of the Treasury Board that TBS develop and implement a practice directing institutions to post the lists of access requests they have received on their websites. We also recommended that TBS enable a central search feature to allow the public to search the lists of requests. In addition, the Office recommended to the President that access requesters and the public in general be consulted to obtain their perspectives on the usefulness of such a tool.
We note that a number of federal institutions are already posting lists of completed access requests on their websites, notably National Defence, Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, as well as the Office of the Information Commissioner.
In response to recommendations, the President of the Treasury Board indicated that TBS would consult federal institutions and assess the associated resource implications. Consultations have commenced.
Based on its discussions with TBS, the Office has noted a willingness to introduce a practice leading to the publication of access requests. TBS has taken a leadership role among federal institutions in posting the list of summaries of requests completed by TBS every month. The Office is confident that TBS will follow up on the recommendations on a government-wide basis. The Office has therefore concluded its investigation and will continue to monitor TBS’s progress in seeking an acceptable alternative to CAIRS.