The quiet cuts

The access to information system grows less accessible

The information commissioner raises concerns about the impact budgets are having (and will have) on the access to information system.

Suzanne Legault, information commissioner of Canada, says her office has seen a sharp rise in complaints about departments that take too long to answer requests under the Access to Information Act. The increase in such complaints over the last six months is likely linked to budget cuts that will remove 19,200 public servants from the federal workforce by 2015, Legault says in a new report.

“If this trend continues, it could seriously stretch our investigative team,” says the document. “We suspect … that budget cuts may be a factor, since a jump in administrative complaints suggests that institutions are struggling to meet their basic obligations under the Act.” Legault’s office is itself caught in the same budget squeeze, with funding reduced by five per cent as the number of complaints coming through the door rises, to 1,596 in 2012-2013, up by eight per cent from the previous year.

The commissioner’s full report is here.

Somewhat relatedly, David Eaves considers the commissioner’s investigation of the handling of government scientists and the cultural question of transparency.

The actions of the information commissioner are to be applauded; what is less encouraging are the limits of her ability to resolve the problem. The truth is that openness, transparency and accountability cannot be created by the adoption of new codes or rules alone. This is because even more than programs and regulations, an open government is the result of culture, norms and leadership. And here the message — felt as strongly by government scientists as any other public servants — is clear. Public servants are allowed less and less to have a perspective, to say nothing of the ability to share that perspective.

This culture is driven right from the top. No single act epitomized how poorly the rules serve us and how damaging the current culture is than when Foreign Minister John Baird handed the parliamentary budget officer — and thus Canadian taxpayers — boxes of documents on stimulus spending rather than a simple digital spreadsheet that could be searched and analyzed. In that moment he made a mockery of what rules around transparency and accountability mean in the absence of culture and norms. Nor was this approach to “disclosure” an outlier.

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