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Audit gives feds, provinces, municipalities mediocre grades on access to info

OTTAWA -- As the country's seventh Right to Know Week kicks off, a new survey suggests that governments at all levels are still falling well short of providing speedy and comprehensive access to information.

An audit conducted for Newspapers Canada, a private industry association, involved hundreds of access requests to federal, provincial and municipal governments across the country earlier this year. The responses were then graded on speed of response and completeness.

The results were mediocre.

On response times, the federal government scored a D, with the provinces getting a C overall and municipalities rating a B.

On completeness, all three levels were graded C.

The audit found some troubling trends in the various access systems, with some jurisdictions bumping up fees and one province making it easier for bureaucrats to dismiss requests.

Fred Vallance-Jones, an associate professor at the University of King's College in Halifax who did the audit, said the results suggest there hasn't been a lot of progress in improving access.

"Overall is the system getting better and faster and more efficient than it was before? I don't really see compelling evidence of that.

"The municipal level is still largely pretty good, the federal level is still pretty slow and at the provincial level it's kind of a mixed bag."

Some jurisdictions work fast, but don't provide much, while others drag their feet, but eventually cough up more information.

However, he said, municipalities have always scored well in past audits of this kind.

"That's partly because municipal governments are smaller, so the people in the clerk's office, they often have a better handle on where the information is, they don't have to order it in from far-flung departments, so it's a simpler process.

"At the federal level, it's an enormous bureaucracy. There's all kinds of layers of approval built in. There's consultations with the Privy Council Office. ... The federal system has just become a kind of morass."

The requests in the survey were straightforward, asking for information such as the number of cellphones distributed to public servants or on government spending on goods and services.

The survey said the data sought "should be readily available and easily accessible."

Federal departments managed to process only about half the requests within the statutory, 30-day deadline. Municipalities tended to be faster, while the provinces were in between.

"The federal government continues to kind of plod along with this information system that, for simple stuff like we asked for, ultimately does release it but it takes a long time," Vallance-Jones said.

"You wonder what's happening with complicated requests."

The audit found other problems. While some jurisdictions are opening up -- New Brunswick has formally brought its municipalities under its access law -- other places are tightening up. Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, has added a number of new exemptions to the law.

"The ultimate effect is to give the people who actually process the requests a whole list of new reasons to say No," Vallance-Jones said.

The audit also found that access systems still remain tied to paper, even when requesters ask for electronic data.

"That's something the governments have to work on," he said. "When people ask for information in the 21st century in electronic form, they shouldn't be sending it in paper.

"It somewhat defeats the whole point of access if you can't access it in a useful format."

Vallance-Jones says he doesn't see any upswelling of support from politicians to new initiatives to open up access. And change must come from the top.

While this audit shows things muddling along, federal information commissioner Suzanne Legault is to mark her contribution to Right to Know Week by starting wide consultations of reform of the access system.

The full text of the Newspapers Canada audit is available here.

For more from The Canadian Press, click here or scroll down The Tyee's main page.

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