Watchdog wants to revive online ATIP request list
Published Wednesday, November 10, 2010 1:42PM EST
OTTAWA - A federal watchdog is urging the government to effectively revive the online list of access-to-information requests it receives -- two years after the Conservatives killed a central registry of applications.
In a long-awaited investigation report, information commissioner Suzanne Legault recommends that federal departments regularly post incoming access requests on their websites.
She also says the federal Treasury Board should create a central search feature to allow the public to easily sift through requests, essentially recreating the system it abandoned.
In addition, Legault suggests the government consult access-requesters and the public on the usefulness of such online tools.
The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to seek a variety of federal files -- from briefing notes and expense reports to correspondence and internal audits.
In 2008, the Harper government scuttled a central registry of access-to-information requests, telling agencies they no longer needed to update the database, known as the Co-ordination of Access to Information Requests System, or CAIRS.
Though not intended for public use, journalists, lawyers, politicians and public-interest groups regularly relied on the database, set up in 1989, to monitor requests on various topics. It allowed them to piggyback on others' requests and quickly determine whether an agency may have already disclosed records on a subject of interest.
The Treasury Board said CAIRS was shut down because the valuable resources necessary to maintain it would be better used elsewhere. Critics saw its demise as the latest in a series of Harper government blows to transparency.
The information commissioner's office launched a systemic investigation in response to a formal grievance from an unknown complainant whose identity the watchdog cannot legally disclose.
In a summary of her findings released Wednesday, Legault says consultations with people who used CAIRS indicated the tool "provided real value to access requesters and the public in general."
"The lack of a centralized source of information makes the search process more time consuming, inefficient and costly," the summary says.
"It was recommended that any alternative system should allow for quick, inexpensive and easy searches of current and previous requests."
In response to her recommendations, Treasury Board President Stockwell Day indicated he would "consult federal institutions and assess the associated resource implications," the summary says.
"Consultations have commenced."
Legault notes some federal institutions, including Treasury Board, Defence, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and her own office, are already posting lists of completed access requests on their websites.
Her office is confident that Treasury Board will "follow up on the recommendations on a government-wide basis," the investigation summary adds.