Don't count on him breaking out the phrase "culture of secrecy", guys - Liveblogging the Info Commissioner at Ethics

Really, take it from someone who was at last week’s press conference. In any case, Information Commissioner Robert Marleau is slated to appear before the Ethics committee this afternoon, so check back at 3:30 pm for full liveblogging coverage.

3:16:32 PM
Just a quick note to let you know that we may be a little bit late getting started this afternoon, since QP ran a little late — as it so often does on Wednesdays — and was followed immediately by tributes to former Speaker Gilbert Parent, who died earlier this week. The rest of us are here – media, spectators, witnesses – but the only MP in the room is Borys W., who – I predict – is going to ask about the RCMP’s track record. I’m sure the rest will start trickling in soon.

3:22:56 PM
I wonder whether they’ll spend more time reviewing the latest departmental report cards or discussing his recommendations on how to reform the ATI Act.

3:26:43 PM
Wow, that’s one almost unforgiveably dull and wonky line of idle musing, isn’t it?

Anyway, a few more MPs have turned up – Bill Siksay, Bob Dechert, Pierre Poilievre. Oh, and Kelly Block. Also, you have no idea how chatty and collegial the ATI officers for various departments are with each other – and if you would have assumed that you’d have to separate staffers from the Privacy and Information Commissioners’ offices lest an brawl break out, you would be sorely mistaken.

3:39:16 PM
Okay you guys – I apologize for the gap in updates, but there seems to be some sort of WordPressian quirk that randomly loses updates, which is just exactly as annoying as it sounds, especially since I have *no idea* what causes it.

Anyway, I had a whole post about the meeting getting started and what the chair said and blah blah etc. that was abruptly consigned to the ether, so rather than attempt to recreate it, I’ll just skip ahead to where we are now, which is in mid-presentation by the commissioner, who began his statement by noting that this is ‘an exciting time for access to information’ — really, when *isn’t* it – before moving on to a speech that sounds much like what he told reporters last week.

Oh, and not technically ATI-related but still worth noting: there’s a meeting of the oversight committee for the budgets of offices of Parliament on March 12th. Mark the date – it’ll be interesting to see if the PBO stuff comes up.

3:45:02 PM
That’s new: Marleau ends with a quote from Alvin Toffler – oh please, let me have spelled that correctly or I’ll never hear the end of it from the baby boomers.

Also, I believe that Borys W. is now just messing with ITQ: His first question is whether Marleau agrees that, rather than a culture of openness, “we’re seeing the opposite”. Marleau lives up to the subject line of this liveblog, and suggests it is “disclosure-averse”, and even goes so far as to say that he doesn’t like the term “culture of secrecy”, since that denotes a conspiracy, and not just a series of happy coincidences that result in less information being released over a longer time period than ever.

3:49:44 PM
Borys moves on to — oh, do I really have to tell you? The RCMP, of course, which was “scraping the bottom of the barrel” in the latest batch of report cards, Borys reminds the committee. He asks which departments were the worst – the “top three”, as far as complaints filed with the InfoCommish, and the answer is CBC, National Defence, and PCO, in that order. Borys finds it curious that at the very moment that there is increased concern over the unprecedented centralization of power in PCO, its refusal to respond to ATI requests has sparked an unprecedented number of complaints.

3:56:57 PM
Eve Marie Thai Thi Luc questions Marleau on various ATI-related odds and ends, from the backlog to administrative challenges, and Marleau notes that his office has found that 50% of the complaints investigated so far as far as information being blacked out turn out to be invalid. As ATI coordinators get more training and experience, he predicts that his office will receive *even fewer* complaints in future. I can’t decide whether that’s refreshingly idealistic or downright insane.

4:01:04 PM
Bill Siksay brings up President Obama’s executive order on access to information, and notes that this must have been ‘very exciting’ for information commissioners all over the world, and then proceeds to try to get Marleau to call on the Prime Minister to issue a similar statement; once again, Marleau makes it clear that he thinks it is civil servants, not ministers and political staffers, who are responsible for the current ennui.

4:05:29 PM
In response to Siksay’s questioning about his powers – can he compel production? Can he order the release of documents? Can he arrest recalcitrant ATI officers? – he notes that he does have various options, although he makes every one sound far less exciting than I just did. He also notes that he is an ombudsman – not a neutral ombudsman; he is “biased towards disclosure” – which means he wants to resolve differences.

4:07:27 PM
Pierre Poilievre would like to remind us all that the CBC – the CBC! Ostensible paragon of freedom of information – is responsible for almost a third of the outstanding complaints, but Marleau reminds him that in the case of the CBC, there was an initial burst of requests, and then complaints, from one individual.

4:11:18 PM
Pierre Poilievre would also like us to put these numbers – the rising number of complaints – in perspective: in the post-FAA environment, there are more than sixty institutions that are newly subject to the Act, including the CBC, which is responsible for over 500 of the outstanding complaints.

Marleau notes that you also have to take into consideration the fact that Citizenship and Immigration is the object of nearly one third of all requests, so that, too, could skew the number.

4:15:09 PM
Before moving to the next round, Szabo asks what the secret of the Department of Justice’s success could be — if you’ve forgotten, it went from three years of failing grades to an A plus this year — and it all comes down to leadership. Go you, Minister Nicholson!

4:17:57 PM
Michelle Simson wants to know more about the appeal process – short version: at least this isn’t the United States, where media agencies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars suing the government over FOI requests.

4:20:50 PM
David Akin, take note: He won’t give details, but Marleau says he is investigating complaints that certain departments are using fees to discourage requests.

4:21:53 PM
Wow. Ten users represent 47% of the requests to the office – and the top three are 35%, and Hiebert – who aked the question that invoked that number – is genuinely installed. He wonders whether this is like complaints under the Privacy Act, which are disproportionately filed by “croo- people who are incarcerated” – aw, Russ – and it sounds as though that’s not the case.

To address that – uh, imbalance, Marleau proposes that he be given discretion to assess complaints and the power to summarily dismiss those that are obviously vexatious. Hm, that sounds like it could address the Three Annoying Guys With Too Much Time On Their Hands situation, but you’d worry that it could be abused.

Oh, and Hiebert gets Marleau to repeat his conclusion that there is no political interference behind the delays.

4:29:28 PM
The Bloc’s Gerard Asselin is far too polite to call Marleau naïve, but he’s clearly not quite ready to accept his absolution of ministers and political staffers in the trend towards non-disclosure; he notes that MPs also depend on ATI to hold the government accountable, and have been similarly thwarted by departmental footdragging. Even basic information is nearly impossible to obtain, he says, and it’s hard to believe it isn’t the result of a directive from the top.

4:33:57 PM
Over to Bob Dechert, who wants to go back to the Inquisitive Whiny Ten, and who wonders how much of his office budget is expended on these complainants; Marleau isn’t willing to say that it represents as much as 47% of the $8 million annual budget.

Dechert then moves on to a former university colleague, Alaistair Roberts – currently a professor at the University of Syracuse, and an expert on ATI – and reads a lengthy – and not very flattering towards his government. I presume he wants Marleau to dismiss the notion that media and opposition requests are “amber lit”. Which he – doesn’t actually do. In fact, he confirms that the media *was* targeted, and faced far longer response times, but parliamentarians had an even worse success rate.

4:40:20 PM
Yeah, I – really don’t know where Dechert was going with that; I think he’s trying to suggest that the Whiny Ten are likely reporters or parliamentarians, but all he’ll say is that these are “experienced users”.

4:43:25 PM
Marleau is fine with the notion of “data brokers” — those who file hundreds of requests on behalf of other individuals – and Siksay suggests *that* might be the reason for the high number of requests coming from a small number of uses. Marleau won’t say yes or no, but it seems like a reasonable supposition.

4:46:42 PM
Dan McTeague! *He’s* not usually on this committee, but that doesn’t stop him from grilling the commissioner on his recommendation that departments forfeit fees if they take longer than sixty days to comply, which – I guess he doesn’t think is quite terrifying enough.

Okay, they’ve now delved so deeply into the regulatory minutaeia of the Act that they’ve officially lost ITQ, so it’s just as well that McTeague is splitting his time with Martha Hall Findlay – who *also* isn’t a regular here. She points out that the public depends on the media for the information gleaned from requests, so wouldn’t you expect that various media outlets would be similarly well represented amongst top users. Actually – no, apparently they aren’t. That’s surprising. The top user group is actually business, Marleau says.

4:52:35 PM
Kelly Block drones on about the report cards, nd reminds us all that Things Were Bad Under The Liberals Too. Worse, even, I’m sure she meant to add. Anyway, she picks the RCMP, of all agencies, to use as her litmus test: the Mounties got a failing grade in last week’s report cards, but *also* F-bombed out in 2005! When there was a Liberal government!
Of course, of all the departments rated in the most recent batch, the one it would make the least sense to use as an example, as far as scoring partisan points, would be the RCMP, since it isn’t run by a minister, and – oh, never mind. This is a spectacularly pointless line of questioning.

4:58:13 PM
Borys is up again, and notes that he has stated that over the last two years, he hasn’t become aware of any examples of “direct interference” on an ATI request, but if he *did*, what would the sanctions be? “Shame and blame”, Marleau tells him – a report to Parliament and all the ensuing political fallout, and — that’s it. You know, maybe that’s something the House should consider changing.

Back to the RCMP and the “culture of non-disclosure”, Borys notes that at last year’s Public Accounts hearings into the RCMP pension scandal, a former ATI officer was brought into the office of a deputy commissioner and told to “swap” one document for another. Oh! I remember that. This committee should totally call that person to testify.

Anyway, Borys continues with that line of questioning – understandably, since it’s actually a pretty good one, especially when contrasted with the ill-advised and totally unnecessary bumbling by Block on the same issue a few minutes prior – and wonders how often files go “missing”. Marleau doesn’t know.

5:03:37 PM
Earl Dreeshan wants to go back to the letter grades – you know how us media types are; we’re always fixating on big, shiny letters – as well as the Top10. Are many of those mystery users data brokers? The list is broken down by “media” and “business” – and data brokers are considered “business”, according to Marleau. He only sees the complaints, so he has no way of knowing whrther there is similar inbalance in the makeup of complainants.

5:07:06 PM
Earl Dreeshan would almost certainly want readers to note that only two departments got worse grades than they did under the Liberals, and Marleau obliges; he notes that there have been improvements at both PCO and Public Works, for instance.

5:10:06 PM
Thi Lac once again touts her absent colleague’s private members’ bill before asking Marleau if these are ten *individuals* or associations, and he confirms that these are individual complainants. I wonder if any of the Whiny Ten are in this room *right now*!

5:13:59 PM
Russ Hiebert is back up, and he wants to reiterate the somewhat astonishing fact that the top three complainants take up a third of his work – a third! Doesn’t he find this odd? Marleau says that he thought it was odd the first time he saw the statistics, but refuses to follow the leading line of questions and declare these to be frivolous or vexatious complaints.

5:17:30 PM
Russ makes what actually sounds like a reasonable suggestion: an escalating fee for complaints that would kick in after, say, the first fifty or so filings. He also isn’t sure whether he agrees with the provision of the Act that protects the privacy of the complainant/requester, particularly given the existence of the top users.

5:20:44 PM
Bill Siksay gets what may be the last round of questions – he wonders about Marleau’s statement that no information commissioner in Canada has ever determined a request to be vexatious, and he – basically says the same thing he did the first time around; really, vexation would depend on what side of the request you were on.

He also wants to know more about the structural deficiencies in information management, and Marleau obliges, noting that government is ‘crumbling’ under the volume of information, including email.

Siksay also wonders about the delays caused by “consultations” – with third parties, with Foreign Affairs/Justice/PCO depending on the subject – and suggests that it has a “pervasive impact” on the progress of requests.

5:27:28 PM
Since the bells – vote, not fire – have gone off, we have time for just two more quick questions; one from Michelle Simson, who wants more information about the top complainers – only one, he suggests, is a media complainant, which means the rest are business, I guess.

Russ is *still* boggling over the numbers – he points out that the top three users generate an enormous cost – wait, now *he’s* doing it; these are the top three *complainants*, not users.

5:31:32 PM
Okay, it took a while for Hiebert to figure out that he’d confused the two, and flipped around the definition of “complainants” with “requesters”, but eventually, it sunk in, and that meant no more questions from Hiebert -i or anyone else, as it turns out, because we are adjourned. Whoo!