The federal information czar wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to tell government agencies they must strive to be transparent and accountable as they wrestle with the fallout from COVID-19.
Information commissioner Caroline Maynard said a message from the top – meaning Trudeau and Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos – is needed to ensure officials properly document federal decision-making during the pandemic.
The commissioner is concerned there could be an incomplete record of government efforts as people work at home or through virtual meetings.
“I think that they just need to be reminded that those responsibilities don’t disappear because you’re working from home,” she said in an interview Tuesday.
The Access to Information Act 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 requests.
Maynard predicts it could take years to recover from the expected delays caused by COVID-19 without prompt government action.
Maynard said she told Duclos in a telephone conversation Tuesday she wants to see departments and agencies pro-actively disclose more information about Ottawa’s efforts to deal with the effects of COVID-19.
“They know what kind of information people are asking (for) right now – everybody’s concerned about the response to COVID,” she said.
“So why wait for an access request? Just provide the information. Everything is in briefing notes, in messaging within government.”
Maynard finds it “ridiculous” that some agencies are still working with paper as they process requests instead of embracing digital tools – a constraint that is especially problematic now that people are doing their jobs remotely.
She wants officials who process access requests to be able to do their jobs easily from home and respond to requesters electronically instead of through old-fashioned snail mail – in short, “finding creative ways to be able to respect their obligations.”
Maynard said Duclos was “very receptive” to her desire to see immediate action.
In a statement, Duclos’ office said Tuesday the Treasury Board Secretariat is providing guidance to institutions to continue to make best efforts to respond to requests, “in accordance with operational realities.”
“Normal operations in the government of Canada, along with provincial and territorial governments and governments in other countries are all impacted by the current circumstances and exceptional measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.”
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