A critical phase for the access to information system
April 28, 2020
The Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos
President of the Treasury Board
Subject: A critical phase for the access to information system
Dear Minister Duclos:
In my public statement of April 2, 2020, Access to Information in Extraordinary Times, I addressed the importance of properly documenting government decisions during the COVID-19 crisis in order to preserve the quasi-constitutional right of access. It is widely accepted that Canadians’ trust in their government is contingent upon openness and transparency. Today I am writing to you to signal that the access to information system, a key pillar in safeguarding this trust, is currently in a critical phase and may soon be beyond repair if certain ongoing and developing issues remain unaddressed. However, with the appropriate leadership and some bold choices, this difficult period could prove to be the catalyst for a true renewal of the access system sought by so many.
Even before the pandemic and the widespread adoption of alternative work arrangements, chronic under-resourcing had created backlogs in both access requests and complaints that had grown year after year. Government employees are now working from home on a large scale, with limited access to physical files, protected information and other resources. I understand that this has curtailed much of the gathering of requested documents, and by extension, the ability of access to information teams to process requests and respond to complaints. My office anticipates that the delays we already see will only become worse the longer that alternative work arrangements are in place. Further, we anticipate that some Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) units will be completely overwhelmed when they resume their full duties.
Given the scale of the pandemic response, institutions can anticipate a surge of access requests related to the government’s handling of the response to COVID-19. Without outstanding leadership and proper planning, we can foresee that the new backlog generated during the current crisis will become another systemic burden, further impeding a system that is already facing major challenges. Simply put, this cannot become the “new normal”.
I strongly recommend that the government’s approach include a greater focus on proactive disclosure of data and decisions related to the pandemic, as a way to mitigate some of the burden on institutions in responding to the inevitable surge of access requests. Enhanced, timely proactive disclosure of reliable and accurate information related to COVID-19 will undoubtedly also counter disinformation and myths – a challenge which is particularly relevant to address in the context of COVID-19.
I note with approval your expression of support of journalistic access to information during a press conference on April 23, and I also acknowledge the work that Treasury Board Secretariat officials have been doing in recent weeks to support the ATIP community. Collecting information centrally on the impact of workplace measures on the capacity of ATIP Offices is an important initial step. I call upon the government to act on this data and put in place mitigation measures wherever possible to deal with the operational impacts of the current alternative work arrangements on these units. The government must make funds available to the system in order to cope with both the delays attributable to the pandemic itself and the impending surge. It is important to take action now. Delays in appropriate resourcing will almost certainly result in backlogs from which it will take years to recover. Canadians expect and deserve a forward-looking and effective response.
Money alone, however, will not address the entirety of the challenge. We are in a moment in time when strong leadership can guide the testing and pursuit of modernization and innovation. One example of such an innovation could include considering identifying the processing of ATIP requests as a priority service even under exceptional working situations like the one we find ourselves in today. This would include equipping ATIP units with leaner processes, better infrastructure and new tools to support the work of managing the inventory of requests and complaints, both in the current operating environment and into the future. Bringing institutions fully into the digital world could create significant efficiencies, not to mention increase the productivity of employees operating under alternative work arrangements.
To reiterate, transparency in government is crucial to maintaining trust between citizens and their government. In order to safeguard openness and transparency, it is incumbent on the government to show leadership and develop a new vision and strategy for modernizing the access system; one that includes innovation, ensures adequately resourced and equipped ATIP units across all institutions, as well as increased proactive disclosure. Based on the concerns I have raised, I trust you will agree that a failure to take action on all these fronts could have serious consequences.
In closing, I encourage you to consider the opening lines of a recent Policy Options piece by Kathryn May:
The COVID-19 pandemic has handed the public service a grand-scale opportunity to experiment with new ways of operating (…) What public servants learn in the next few months by working remotely and in crisis could jolt the bureaucracy into a reordering of practices and culture that reformers haven’t been able to do in 25 years.
The current crisis has indeed brought new challenges, but I also believe it has created a window of opportunity for bringing about much-needed changes to the operating model of government and the culture that underlies it. I sincerely hope that the government will seize the moment and take on this task. I would be happy to discuss with you what change might look like for the access to information system and how we can bring it about.
Information Commissioner of Canada
Cc: Secretary of the Treasury Board,
Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat