Immediate action is required—beyond the upcoming review of the access to information system—to repair the federal access system

Gatineau, Quebec, July 10, 2020 — The Government of Canada’s upcoming review of the access to information system presents an excellent opportunity to take a close look at the governance and functioning of access at the federal level and at its overarching legislation, the Access to Information Act. I look forward to contributing to the legislative review and any other activities the government undertakes to improve the access system.

However, strong leadership and concrete actions by institutions and the government alike are required now—even as a review has been announced—to address not only longstanding problems in the access system but also numerous issues I have identified in the context of the pandemic, including the following.

  • The government’s pandemic response must not suspend the right of access or the need for transparency

Federal institutions must take all reasonable measures to continue to process access requests and properly document decisions and decision-making processes in accordance with the Policy on Information Management. More: Statement from the Office of the Information Commissioner on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, March 20, 2020

  • Institutions must respond to the challenges telework presents to access

Heads of federal institutions must provide clear direction on how public servants are to manage information while working remotely, sometimes outside of government networks. The circumstances also require institutions to step up their proactive disclosure of information Canadians seek. More: Access to information in extraordinary times, April 2, 2020

  • Innovation and new technological solutions are needed now

The government must develop a new vision for the access system, which otherwise is in danger of collapse. Modernization must centre on innovation, new technology, and adequately resourced and equipped access units in all institutions. More: A critical phase for the access to information system: Letter to Treasury Board President, the Hon. Jean-Yves Duclos, April 28, 2020

In the meantime, however, many heads of institutions must address the fact that they have not taken all appropriate measures to ensure that their institutions could properly maintain access rights, as required by law. Consequently, access staff working remotely are not always on their institution’s corporate network, significantly impeding operations or, in a few alarming cases, paralyzing them. Moreover, archaic practices—sending documents by mail or CD-ROM, photocopying and scanning paper records—must cease. More: The importance of access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic (appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates), June 19, 2020

Canadians deserve bold and decisive action

Done right, and taking the time required, the government’s review of the access system and law should strengthen the right of access and how it is administered.

However, legislative amendments are not required to fix many of the practical issues affecting the access system. Change is needed now. Access officials must have the resources and tools they need to respond efficiently and effectively to access requests. The culture of secrecy must end. The right of access must be upheld.

I call on institutions and the government to take immediate steps to repair the access system and protect this fundamental democratic right.

Caroline Maynard
Information Commissioner of Canada

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