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President of the Treasury Board Jean-Yves Duclos speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on May 27, 2020.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The federal minister responsible for public access to government information has advised his cabinet colleagues of the need for transparency and accountability “even in times of crisis.”

In a letter sent Wednesday to his fellow ministers, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos says being open during the COVID-19 pandemic is key to ensuring public confidence.

The letter, obtained by The Canadian Press, stresses the importance of documenting government decision-making, managing sensitive files securely and making best efforts to answer requests under the Access to Information Act.

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It also encourages ministers to have their institutions pro-actively publish as much information as possible about COVID-19 on the federal open government portal as soon as this is feasible.

The message from Duclos follows calls from information commissioner Caroline Maynard, the Canadian Association of Journalists and an ad hoc accountability group for concrete actions to ensure transparency during the pandemic.

The Access to Information law allows people who pay a $5 fee to request a wide range of federal files, but the government says the pandemic is hampering its ability to answer formal applications.

Earlier this spring, Maynard predicted it could take years to recover from the expected delays caused by COVID-19 without prompt government action. She spoke with Duclos about her concerns during a May 5 phone call.

Many federal employees are working remotely and those doing non-essential duties have been asked to limit their use of government networks, sometimes making it more difficult for agencies to release information.

In addition, those who process formal requests from the public under the information law often lack access to secret documents, which can only be viewed on government premises.

Duclos thanks public servants in his letter for the extraordinary efforts being made across government to respond to the pandemic and to maintain operations.

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“As you lead your institutions through these exceptional circumstances, I would like to remind you of the continuing importance of providing transparency and accountability to Canadians, even in times of crisis,” his letter says.

“It is paramount to the confidence of Canadians in the institutions that serve them.”

The federal government has issued guidance to employees on security procedures and information preservation when working from home.

Duclos says employees must safeguard government information in their care, document activities and decisions of business value and save these records in relevant data banks.

“It also means ensuring that information is communicated and managed securely, and in accordance with its sensitivity.”

Proper practices will ensure information can be used to support government decisions and improve services for Canadians while upholding their right to request these records, the letter says.

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