We should have a new federal government by this time next week, and with all the expensive promises the parties have been splashing around, whoever takes charge will undoubtedly be looking for “savings and efficiencies” to cover some of those costs.
It may not save a lot of money, maybe millions instead of billions, but there is an area where the government can definitely end the financial bleeding.
Ever since the Access to Information Act was passed in 1983, the federal government has charged an application fee of $5 for people trying to exercise their right to access information held by the government.
On the face of it, that doesn’t seem particularly outrageous.
However, when someone pays this fee with a cheque, the cost of processing that cheque is more than $50.
Former information commissioner Robert Marleau pointed out this absurdity in his 2009 testimony to Parliament’s Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics committee, but 12 years later nothing has changed.
In 2016, the committee reviewed the Access to Information Act and unanimously recommended the government do the obvious thing and get rid of the $5 fee.
For reasons they have never explained, the Liberal government decided to keep charging requesters the $5 application fee (although to their credit, they did get rid of other fees which had been charged for access requests).
Despite the absurdity of spending $50 to collect $5 from information requesters, it appears that Treasury Board to this day has no idea how much the total cost has been to cash all those $5 cheques.
When asked for a figure of how much the government had spent to cash the $5 cheques going back to 2016, Treasury Board officials stated that although the government’s statistical report on access to information includes salaries, overtime, goods and services, contracts and other expenses specific to access to information offices, it does not break down costs related to processing application fees.
Treasury Board officials note that if a request is received and paid for electronically, the processing costs drop to 50 cents, leaving a profit of $4.50 for the government.
However, not all departments are set up to take electronic requests or payments, and there is nothing requiring requesters to pay electronically even if it is available.
This means electronic payments have to outnumber cheques 12 to one just to offset the cost of processing a single cheque. Even if 10 per cent of fees are received in cheque form, the government would be losing money collecting these fees from requesters.
Where they stand
So, what do the platforms of the five parties running to become the next government say about access to information reform?
Two of them (Conservatives and Greens) say very little, while the other three (Liberal, NDP and People’s Party) say nothing at all. This does not bode well for anything happening in terms of improvements in what is now an archaic and wasteful system.
The Greens have exactly one line stating that they would “expand the Access to Information Act to include the Prime Minister’s Office, minister’s offices, and administration of Parliament."
The Conservatives also have a one-line commitment which reads: “Fix Access to Information by giving the Commissioner of Information the power to make orders to departments to release information promptly, to bring an end to the current government’s practice of endless delays that makes a mockery of the law.”
Interestingly, the Conservative platform includes a detailed paragraph that takes aim at a part of the Canada Evidence Act, which protects cabinet confidences from release to criminal investigations. However, the Conservatives do not mention a very similar section in the Access to Information Act that prevents release of claimed cabinet confidences, and also prevents either the information commissioner or the courts from examining the government’s claims.
The Liberal government has said in the past that it would look at reforms going beyond what it brought in in 2019 but has not made specific commitments and has put nothing in its platform for this election.
There is a solution to this ridiculous situation that would save taxpayers’ money and remove another barrier for requesters — have government institutions waive the application fee.
The Information Commissioner of Canada already waives the fees for access to information requests to her office, and a blanket waiver policy would not require a legislative change.
Given the lack of action on access to information reform over the last 40 or so years, I wouldn’t bet $5 on anything changing anytime soon.