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Feds need 'to do better' on giving public access to information, Duclos says


OTTAWA — The federal government needs to do better at responding to formal information requests from the public, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos acknowledged Monday.

The minister's comments follow information commissioner Caroline Maynard's parliamentary testimony that federal agencies don't have the resources to answer the steeply rising number of access-to-information requests.

Duclos said during a media briefing Monday that providing timely facts in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic is especially important because worried Canadians tend to look to the government for information.

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to request an array of federal files — from briefing materials to internal memos — but the law has been widely criticized as outdated and inefficient.

Public servants working at home have faced genuine pandemic-related hurdles in answering requests for information, Duclos said.

"But we do feel that we need to do better over the longer term. And that will involve working closely with the information commissioner."

Duclos pointed to "technological weaknesses" in some — but not all — departments that make it difficult for them to deliver information. "We can do a lot better. And we know how to do this in fact, in many cases, because there are some departments and agencies that are doing much better than others."

Agencies must also release more records without being asked, Duclos said.

But the government is warning on its open information portal of possible delays in the publication of information about such things as contracts, hospitality expenses and briefing notes during the pandemic: "We will continue to make reasonable efforts to meet the timelines for the proactive disclosure of government information, in accordance with operational realities."

Duclos did not mention the possibility of spending more money on the system for releasing public information.

Maynard, an ombudsman for users of the access law, told a House of Commons committee Friday the Trudeau government had not provided the resources that departments and agencies need to answer the rising number of requests for records from the public.

She would like another 20 to 25 investigators to bolster her current roster of 62 people who look into complaints from frustrated information-seekers.

"The government needs to commit to proper resources and innovative solutions to ensure the right of access for all Canadians," she said. "Let's not forget that access delayed is access denied."

The government is inviting Canadians to say what they think of the access law, fulfilling a pledge to begin a review by June 21 of this year and undertake one every five years thereafter.

In a statement last week, the government said it would take advantage of new digital approaches to engage with Canadians and reveal details about "engagement opportunities" in the coming weeks.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2020.

—Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press

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