No independent oversight of federal obligation to routinely publish info: officials

·2 min read

OTTAWA — Senior officials acknowledged Thursday there is no independent oversight of the requirement that federal departments proactively publish government records.

Justin Trudeau promised in the 2015 election campaign to allow Canadians to request documents from ministerial offices through the Access to Information Act, but he backed away from the pledge after the Liberals assumed power.

Instead, the government introduced a requirement that ministers regularly publish information including mandate letters, certain briefing materials, and travel and hospitality expenses.

During a public question-and-answer session Thursday, part of a federal review of the access law, officials were asked why the information commissioner, an independent ombudsman, was not given the job of ensuring departments meet their publishing obligations.

Jennifer Schofield of the Treasury Board Secretariat said there is no specific oversight mechanism for proactive disclosure.

"But it is subject to public scrutiny," she said. "The public is easily able to see if information has been practically published by an institution at any given time."

Schofield's colleague Sonya Read said deputy ministers in each department are responsible for ensuring they're in compliance with the publication scheme.

A report from the government review of the Access to Information Act is to be submitted to the Treasury Board president by Jan. 31 of next year.

The review, announced last June, has prompted skepticism from open-government proponents, who note many studies have been done over the years on reforming the access law.

The law, introduced in 1983, allows people who pay $5 to ask for a range of federal documents, but it has been widely criticized as antiquated and poorly managed.

Information commissioner Caroline Maynard wants the offices of the prime minister and other cabinet members to be included under the access law.

Maynard said the records these offices hold, with the exception of those of a personal or political nature, should be accessible to the public.

"It is important to provide the public with access to records that are of interest to them, not just those that are proactively made available to them," she said in a written submission to the government earlier this year.

The federal review is focusing on the legislative framework, opportunities to improve proactive publication, and assessing processes to improve service and reduce delays.

Details about the consultations and procedures for making written submissions are posted at atiareview.ca.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2021.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press