Nunavut's privacy commissioner, Graham Steele, says the public service needs a central team of staff to process access to information requests. That's one way the territory could upgrade a system he says isn't working.
MLAs are reviewing the commissioner's 2021-2022 annual report in the legislature this week, on Monday and Tuesday. Information, Steele says, is crucial to all government work.
"It's an important piece of everything to do with health, water quality, COVID and housing — to make sure that the people of the territory have the information they need to make up their minds about whether or not their government is doing a good job," he told CBC News Monday.
Right now, each department responds to information and privacy requests separately. Response times aren't consistent, said Steele, or even in line with legislated deadlines. According to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the government has 25 days to respond to a request for information, or 50 with an extension. But citizens sometimes wait months for a response. He said the public is owed information about housing, education, health and social services.
The government says the delays are because of staff shortages, but Steele said that's not an excuse for poor information management.
"We cannot allow public bodies to throw up their hands and say we're doing our best, sorry we can't meet what the law says," he told members of the standing committee on oversight of government operations and public accounts.
Steele gave some examples of poor records management, saying that when fire was set to a sea can holding paper files there was no record of what files were being stored. In another example he said medical travel staff posted the names of patients they were looking to contact on a community social media page.
Some departments, like Family Services, don't have the information being requested, said Iqaluit-Sinaa MLA Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster.
"What we know is that over the years there hasn't been a system in place that guarantees that information, and specifically for children in foster care for example," she said. "There isn't a clear understanding of whether or not the information systems are collecting and saving the information for those children in care."
Deputy minister says change to come from this assembly
These stories show the need for fast change, said Jimi Onalik, deputy minister for Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs.
"This gives all the more weight to having that central authority that can help with training and make departments aware of their responsibilities," he said, adding that the current access to information process relies too heavily on individual jobs that see high turnover. He says for some coordinator positions the workload gets to be too much.
"We do not have enough people and they are not well enough supported to do the jobs that we ask of them," he told CBC. "We need to handle requests like this in a more efficient way, I think ultimately it's going to be this assembly that decides how that's handled."
He said options for change are being considered for the draft budget and business plan to be tabled in the winter sitting.
Staffing problems won't change, Steele said, until access to information coordinators get paid more, or get access to staff housing. Because coordinators are junior positions or part-time roles, they see high turnover. Or, those staff don't have the experience to understand the government, or the confidence to press senior officials to get information, he said.
Steele said the Department of Health does the best at responding to information requests and reporting privacy breaches, because healthcare is used to working with confidential information. The department also has a longtime access to information and privacy request coordinator who fills a more senior role.
In January 2021 the government hired a full-time territorial access to information and privacy requests manager.