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Marleau: The gathering storm


 

Two weeks ago I posted a surprising observation about Information Commissioner Robert Marleau’s annual report: despite a rapidly-growing backlog of complaints from users of the Access to Information system, Marleau has abandoned his power to launch so-called “systemic” investigations into the government’s handling of access requests.

Now here is the text of a scathing letter (.pdf file) from the noted Ottawa lawyer, Col. (ret’d) Michel Drapeau, excoriating Marleau for his management of the Information Commissioner’s office. Highlights:

• Drapeau denounces “a stalemate in which users of the ATIA are stymied in their ability to either obtain disclosure of records within the statutory period or, failing that, to obtain from your office a prompt and effective investigation of their complaints.”

• Drapeau says Marleau’s plans to implement a “triage” system within the growing backlog “does nothing to eliminate or reduce the backlog.”

• He says Marleau is in effect dooming most access requests to even longer waits, based on Marleau’s own judgement about which complaints get to move up the queue, a state of affairs Drapeau calls “un-Canadian and undemocratic treatment of a quasi-constitutional right.”

• He notes that in an unprecedented closed-door, invites-only “consultation” about Marleau’s proposed changes, which was held yesterday at the tony Rideau Club, 25% of invitees were federal public servants, an “over-representation… obviously at the expense of users/ complainants” and “possibly a tell-tale sign of your own disposition and bias… you appear to be more sensitive, attentive and protective of the views and concerns of federal institutions instead of ‘promoting’ the ‘right to know’ of ordinary Canadians.”

It is important to note that Michel Drapeau is neither some random crank nor a full-time critic of the current government. Indeed, last December Peter MacKay appointed Drapeau to the Board of Governors of Collège royal militaire de St-Jean.

So when he decries this government’s “penchant for increased obscurity not transparency” and warns that Bob Marleau (who, it must be stated and emphasized, had an absolutely sterling record of public service before he was appointed Information Commissioner) is turning out to be a toothless watchdog, it is cause for serious concern.

UPDATE: I should note that the Ottawa Citizen has already published a story about the Drapeau letter.


 
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Marleau: The gathering storm

  1. The last sentence in the Ottawa Citizen article – “…a spokeswoman … said the information commissioner’s office was committed to improving the status quo…”.
    Worth a smile.

  2. Great letter from Drapeau. Here’s hoping the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics gets on with this and calls Marleau in.

  3. It never ceases to amaze me how somewhat reputable journalists, sometimes go for the easy headline without the courtesy of asking for the other side of the story before formulating a judgment. Every syllogism has two premises before a conclusion can be sustained. Your last 2 blogs were based on only one premise:
    1) The commissioner reports 0 systemic investigations, therefore he has abandonned them.
    2)Some critics say the commissioner is anemic, therefore he is anemic.
    I would have expected better journalism from you and better overall from Maclean’s.
    The Commish

  4. Dear Mr. Marleau — if indeed it is you in the above comment:

    So if it is so important for you to give your side of the story, why didn’t you do so when we (at the Ottawa Citizen) tried — repeatedly — to get you to reply to Drapeau’s letters for the story Andrew Thomson wrote for us, which Paul Wells links above?

    We asked for the other side of the story. You refused to give it.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew Potter
    Public Affairs columnist, Maclean’s
    News editor, Ottawa Citizen

  5. Andrew, I’m awaiting a callback from Marleau’s office on whether this is indeed him. Your point is well taken indeed, but we’re hanging fire on whether this comment is authentic.

  6. ‘Tis indeed the Commissioner and my office will confirm by phone in the morning and also correct Mr.Potter on his facts for this rescue attempt.

  7. I respect Col. Drapeau and his opinions, but there’s at least one disconnect for me in this letter:
    “He notes that in an unprecedented closed-door, invites-only “consultation” about Marleau’s proposed changes (…) 25% of invitees were federal public servants, an “over-representation… obviously at the expense of users/ complainants””.

    I’ve worked in 3 different departments as a public servant, and I occasionally have to deal with ATI requests. I’ve never sensed any desire on the part of my managers, directors, deputy ministers, or even Ministers’ Offices or the PMO to delay or obstruct any request. The delays are always due to workload issues: some of the requests can take dozens if not hundreds of hours to complete, and it’s impossible for me to abandon all of my other tasks – ie, the things the public expects me to do – every time a request shows up.

    Whatever the solution may be, it will involve public servants. Having a number of them in the room when these issues are discussed is hardly an “over-representation”. How many users/ complainants are needed in the room to say “the System ain’t working”?

    “Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompentency.” Or in this case, inadequate staffing.

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