The federal government is struggling to keep up with the onslaught of access-to-information requests it is receiving, frequently missing its legal deadlines to respond and having to carry requests over into future years, according to a new report.
Compiled and published by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat on behalf of 191 federal institutions, the data in the report capture both access-to-information and privacy requests in the 2021-22 fiscal year, which ended on March 31.
The statistics depict a population increasingly hungry for information – and a government that can’t keep up.
In the 2022 fiscal year, Ottawa received a record 222,807 access-to-information requests. Four-fifths of those were directed to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), a department that in recent years has been flooded with access requests from immigration applicants seeking to learn about their cases. (Given the sheer volume of requests to IRCC, Treasury Board separates out the department for most of its statistics.)
But the number of access requests is growing even once IRCC is excluded. In 2022, the rest of the federal government received 45,334 requests, a record unto itself. More and more requests are being carried over into future years, too, meaning Ottawa is having to handle both new files and the older ones it didn’t close.
“[Institutions] are not keeping pace with the requests they receive each year,” the Treasury Board report reads, “let alone addressing requests that are carried forward from one period to the next.”
The federal government, along with every other level of government in Canada, has some form of access-to-information or freedom-of-information legislation. Though the laws vary by jurisdiction, they all provide a process by which individuals can formally ask for records held by public bodies that would otherwise be inaccessible.
In 2016, 22 per cent of all non-immigration files were carried over to the next year, according to The Globe and Mail’s analysis. By 2022, the carry-over rate was 41 per cent.
That rate obscures significant variation between institutions, however: The Public Health Agency of Canada carried over 64.5 per cent of its files this year, followed by Innovation, Science and Economic Development (63.9 per cent), Correctional Service Canada (58.8 per cent) and Library and Archives Canada (55.3 per cent). IRCC, meanwhile, sat at 25 per cent.
The growing carry-over problem is just one indication of Canada’s buckling access system.
Close to a third of access requests are being completed outside of their legislated deadlines, according to the data – meaning the government is routinely flouting the law when completing access requests.
Federal institutions are required to process requests within 30 days, though they are able to take a one-time extension. Even with these extensions, 29.3 per cent of requests closed in 2022 were already outside their legal deadlines.
The statistics also show that the government has modernized some of its access operations during the pandemic. In 2016, 54 per cent of non-immigration requests were provided on paper, a common point of frustration for requesters. By 2022, just 10 per cent of requests were delivered this way.
Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada, said she was happy that the number of access requests was increasing. “That’s good,” she said. “It reflects that Canadians care, and are fed up with being shielded from the reality of how their tax dollars are being used and what the people they elect are doing.”
However, the continued delays and carry-overs are evidence that “the government must be perfectly comfortable with the lack of service,” she said. “The status quo suits the government.”
Vincent Gogolek, a retired lawyer and former executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said the steady increase in access requests likely comes down to two things: First was the Liberal government’s elimination of all access fees beyond the initial $5, which made access requests much more affordable for the average person.
Second, people may be turning to access requests as a last resort, after unsuccessfully trying to get information out of the government through other means, Mr. Gogolek said.
The delay and backlog figures detailed in the Treasury Board report are part of a trend he has tracked for years. “This is not a temporary condition,” he said. “This is something the government should be dealing with.”
The report also includes estimates on the total cost of the access system. According to the data, the access-to-information system cost $94.1-million to administer in 2022 across the federal government. But a separate report published recently suggests the true price tag may be far beyond that.
According to an Ernst and Young costing study commissioned by the Treasury Board, the federal access regime cost roughly $195-million in the 2020-21 fiscal year. This is after accounting for “indirect costs” – namely, the costs incurred by government offices preparing documents that are then sent along to access offices for review, redaction and release.
Mr. Gogolek warned that this new estimate was “fuzzy,” however, since providing information to the public is one of the government’s jobs. “This is part of government in a democratic society,” he said.
Earlier this month, the Treasury Board tabled a long-awaited review of access-to-information legislation. That review, which was heavily criticized by access experts, did not include recommendations on how to fix Ottawa’s access system.
As part of its review, the Treasury Board provided an update on its next steps on access to information. Those steps include a project looking at declassifying historical national-security files, updating the Treasury Board’s access-to-information manual used by public servants and training government organizations on new software for processing access requests.