Senior officials from four different federal departments told a House of Commons committee Monday that their access-to-information units are plagued by chronic staff shortages, outdated technology and pandemic-created backlogs.
These same issues came up repeatedly in the testimony of directors from the RCMP, Public Safety Canada, Global Affairs Canada and the Privy Council Office. Each was speaking to the Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics about the challenges their offices face in complying with access-to-information legislation.
Some of the officials noted that it can be difficult to find candidates to fill vacant access-to-information jobs. “Let’s be blunt, there are currently far more positions than candidates,” David Janzen, the RCMP’s director general of access to information and privacy, said in his opening statement.
Derek Melchin, the access director at Public Safety, echoed the sentiment: “There’s a shortage of trained personnel … We’re all stealing from each other.”
Efforts to find and grow talent from within come with their own setbacks, Mr. Melchin said. He explained that if access officials are busy recruiting or training, they aren’t processing files.
Colleen Calvert, the director general at Global Affairs Canada, raised the same concerns about personnel. She noted that these long-standing staffing problems are continuing at a time of record numbers of new access requests.
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“We are seeing a 30-per-cent increase in ATIPP requests,” she said.
She added that pandemic public health restrictions, which kept Global Affairs staff out of the office in the early stages of the pandemic, created large backlogs that continue to this day. (Some of the directors pointed to the sensitive nature of the documents that their departments handle as an explanation for why the records could not be processed off-site.)
She said it has a been a balancing act to try and work out the old files while also processing new ones.
“One of the biggest challenges is clearing the backlog while staying on time for your current responses,” she said.
Like others, Ms. Calvert said the access regime would benefit from the use of better technology, including artificial intelligence, to process requests. “Our technology’s not very capable compared to the information age that we’re in,” she told the committee.
Matthew Shea, the assistant secretary to the cabinet, ministerial services and corporate affairs at the Privy Council Office, also pointed to COVID-19 as a reason his department has struggled to meet its legislated access obligations. He warned it will take several years to dig out of the hole they’re in.
During the hearing, each official was asked to identify the longest continuing request they had on their books. All four departments gave answers in the five-to-six-year range.
Every level of government in Canada, and almost every public institution, is covered by some type of access-to-information or freedom-of-information legislation. The laws vary slightly between jurisdictions, but the general function remains the same: these are processes by which citizens can formally ask for copies of records held by public bodies that would otherwise be secret.
In early October, the committee began hearing testimony from access-to-information experts and stakeholders as part of a parliamentary study on the federal access regime.
First up was Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard, who explained that her office – which handles appeals of federal access requests – was on track to receive a record 10,000 complaints this year. “Nobody’s doing great,” she told the committee, adding that long delays, excessive redactions and underresourcing have paralyzed Canada’s access regime.
Among the others to testify were lawyer Michel Drapeau, who said Ms. Maynard’s office has become its own bottleneck, with the OIC regularly taking years to complete investigations, and Michael Wernick, Canada’s former top public servant, who called for the Prime Minister and federal cabinet ministers to be covered by access-to-information laws. They’re currently exempt.