The Conservative government has agreed to stop requiring information about a person’s background before processing their requests for documents under the Access to Information Act.
An online service launched this year by the federal Treasury Board has required requesters first to indicate whether they’re from the media, business, academia or other categories before they can submit applications to see government records under the Act.
The online form cannot be completed without providing the requester’s background category. There is no “decline to identify” option.
The question about backgrounds is not sanctioned under the law, and does not appear on paper forms the federal government has been using for access-to-information requests since the Act came into force in 1983.
But the question was quietly added to the online form for a pilot project launched April 9, which has accepted more than 10,000 access-to-information requests in the last seven months.
The Internet-based service now covers seven federal departments, and is to expand across all of government over the next two years.
A 2010 directive from Treasury Board requires departments to inform those asking for documents under the Act that officials will “process your request without regard to your identity.”
The office of Canada’s information commissioner investigated the new online question about background categories after The Canadian Press raised the issue.
Treasury Board has since told an information commissioner investigator that by March 31 next year it will add a “decline to identify” category to the five currently listed under the question: “Select the category that best describes you.”
The current categories in a drop-down menu are academia, business-private sector, media, organizations, member of the public.
A spokeswoman for Treasury Board, Fiona MacLeod, said “the category of requesters does not identify the requester — it is aggregated information used for statistical purposes.”
Since 1985, departments have been required to produce statistics under these categories but do not have the authority to demand such information from requesters. Departments often make educated guesses, though the backgrounds of repeat requesters are usually well known.
MacLeod declined further comment on the issue, saying the Treasury Board “cannot comment on an active complaint before the information commissioner.”
The Conservative government has come under fire in the past for the secretive practice of flagging sensitive access-to-information requests for special scrutiny by cabinet minister’s offices.
The process, sometimes called the “purple file” or “amberlight” system, required bureaucrats in access-to-information units to alert ministers’ offices to potentially embarrassing documents requested by journalists or opposition parties.
“This purple file process creates a high-risk environment for potential influence or interference,” information commissioner Suzanne Legault wrote in 2011 about a case in which a minister’s aide interfered in the release of an access-to-information request ke knew was destined for a journalist.
“Amberlighting” also existed under previous Liberal governments, and was roundly condemned by then-opposition leader, Stephen Harper. He called it “wrong in principle.”
At least two studies have demonstrated that requests from news media or opposition parties take longer to process than other requests, largely because of extra scrutiny from ministers’ political aides.