Improvements to access to GNWT information finally coming into effect

·3 min read
MLAs made a host of changes to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act two years ago. Most of those changes will be coming into effect this summer.  (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada - image credit)
MLAs made a host of changes to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act two years ago. Most of those changes will be coming into effect this summer. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The public will have more access to information held by the government of the Northwest Territories and its agencies starting this summer, as changes finalized by MLAs almost two years ago come into effect.

The changes include giving the independent Access to Information and Protection of Privacy (ATIPP) commissioner the authority to order the release of information rather than just recommend it.

"It changes the identity of who would have to make the first move to second-guess a final decision," said ATIPP commissioner Andrew Fox.

Currently, the government makes the final decision on what information can and cannot be released, regardless of what the commissioner recommends. If the person applying for the information disagrees with the government's decision, they can challenge it in court.

Starting this summer, the commissioner will have the authority to order the release of information. If the government disagrees, it can go to court to challenge it.

Deadlines changing

Another change effective this summer (officials are aiming to introduce the changes by late July) has to do with the amount of time the government has to respond to requests for information.

The initial deadline of one month will remain. Right now the government or any of its agencies subject to the act can extend the limit for "a reasonable period." That's going to change to 20 days.

"After that, if they need any more time to respond, which could easily happen, they will have to come to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and ask for that extension, and they will obviously have to have reasons why they require extra time," Fox said.

Access to information requests centralized

Another change that officially came into effect on Monday was the centralization of processing access to information requests. In the past, access requests were made directly to the departments or agencies with the information. Now all requests are handled by the Access and Privacy Office, which is part of the Department of Justice.

"It will hopefully lead to more efficiencies, clearer responses, more consistent responses throughout government," said Elizabeth Doyle, who is heading up the office. "It's sort of part of an overall push to open up government and should lead to a smoother process for both applicants and in terms of implementing feedback from the Access and Privacy Commissioner."

Another key change — applying the Act to communities — will not be implemented for another year or more. That change is not popular with municipal governments, which range in size from the City of Yellowknife to tiny settlements such as Colville Lake.

"We feel it's an undue burden on community governments when, in fact, their data is all very readily available, they're the closest to the people and the most transparent in their operations to begin with," said Sara Brown, CEO of the Northwest Territories Association of Communities.

Brown said there has to be a detailed accounting of what additional resources communities will require to be able to comply with the Act.

"With community governments already underfunded to the tune of 40 percent, it's really hard to talk about adding responsibilities and actions that will create quite a burden," she said.