OTTAWA - New federal statistics show the government is backsliding when it comes to answering access-to-information requests in a timely way, says information commissioner Suzanne Legault.
"There's no other way to look at it," Legault said Monday in an interview.
Fewer requests were being answered within 30 days in 2011-12 than during the previous year, Legault noted.
In addition, about 15 per cent of applications were answered late — even though federal agencies can grant themselves generous extensions.
And the number of those extensions climbed year-over-year.
Legault called the developments disquieting. "On timeliness, unfortunately, we're seeing a clear regression, and that's really negative."
The Access to Information Act, which took force in 1983, allows people who pay $5 to request a variety of records from federal agencies — from correspondence and briefing notes to expense reports and audits.
In a release accompanying the statistics, issued quietly last month, Treasury Board President Tony Clement said the Harper government was the most transparent in Canadian history.
"There has never been a time when Canadians have had as much access to government information."
Clement, minister responsible for administration of the access system, said the government completed 43,664 access-to-information requests in 2011-12, nearly double the number of a decade ago.
The government has effectively responded to rapid-fire technological changes that mean a single information request can encompass 20,000 pages of information and half a dozen departments, he added.
Legault rejects Clement's claim of unprecedented openness.
"I think that there's lots of work to be done in order to be considered transparent government," she said, adding there's no clear evidence that requests are becoming more complex to process.
The federal access regime simply doesn't function very well, said Fred Vallance-Jones, who teaches journalism at University of King's College in Halifax.
"The system is just overburdened, over-complex, over-cautious," he said after reviewing the latest figures.
"If you had some will, I think you could make a lot of improvements quite easily."
Ideally, requests are supposed to be answered within 30 days, but departments can take almost unlimited extensions, as long as they are for a "reasonable period of time."
Legault is heading to the Federal Court of Canada on behalf of one requester to the Defence Department who was slapped with an extension of 1,100 days — more than three years beyond the 30-day limit.
She is also gathering comments from the public on reforming the access law, which has changed little in 30 years. Legault believes a curb on extensions would help.
"There's not enough discipline in the legislation to deal with the way that extensions are taken in the system," she said.
Of the 15 per cent of completed requests that were late in 2011-12, the government most often cited excessive workload as the reason.
Workload — or being short-staffed — is not a justification under the act for taking more time, Legault said.
The number of staff that answer access requests has remained constant at 524 full-time personnel and 296 part-timers, said Barbara Dundas, a senior analyst with the Treasury Board Secretariat.
The government says it has also increased spending on the access system by $15 million over the last five years.
But Legault's fears about recent federal budget cuts hindering the access system may be coming true.
"We're beginning to see the effects of the cuts across the system," she said Monday.
Legault cited two agencies — the RCMP and Transport Canada — about which she is receiving more complaints. She sees no explanation other than a lack of resources at these agencies to answer requests efficiently.
The newly published statistics — the most extensive on the federal access system to date — will help the government make policy decisions, Dundas said.
"This baseline data that we have now will shape the policies and guidance that come next."
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