Access to information study flawed: Mitchell

The Yukon is responding to information requests quickly and openly, says a new government-sponsored report.

The Yukon is responding to information requests quickly and openly, says a new government-sponsored report.

However, critics challenge that assessment, charging it’s politically motivated and ignores the facts.

“The report is trying to put the best possible picture on a sorry situation,” said Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell, referring to an eight-page study written and released by the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy office last week.

Despite some startling numbers, the in-house conclusion is that government is being open and fair with public information.

“They’re grading themselves and they gave themselves a passing grade, but I don’t,” said Mitchell.

The study found almost 40 per cent of people who requested government information were forced to wait beyond a 30-day time limit set by the ATIPP act.

Further, in 2005-2006, only 36 per cent of those who made requests received all the information they sought.

A similar number received only partial information and two per cent received outright refusals.

Since 2002, there has also been a sharp spike in requests for information. That increase isn’t explored or explained in the report.

But despite those numbers, the review found government to be quick and fair with information requests.

“I feel, in general, that public servants are very willing to share information and are quite willing to work with applicants to make sure they obtain it,” corporate information manager Judy Pelchat said last week.

Pelchat drafted the report’s conclusions.

“Once educated and familiar with it, I feel, in most cases, (government workers) are very keen to adhere to the act,” she said.

Many of the report’s statistics don’t mesh with that message, said Mitchell.

Political pressure has been applied to polish some rather embarrassing facts, he said.

Mitchell is most worried about statistics documenting the total number of ATIPP requests received since the act was created in 1996.

Between 1996 and 2002, the average number of requests for information stood at about 60 per year.

But since 2002, the ATIPP office has received an average of 315 requests every year, with a peak of 464 requests between 2004 and 2005.

“There’s certainly a dramatic increase in requests for information since the Yukon Party came to office,” said Mitchell. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence; I think this is the most secretive government we’ve seen in a long time.

“You don’t really ATIPP something if you can pick up the phone and find out something from an official.

“I think the bureaucracy has been told by this government, ‘Don’t talk to the public, don’t talk to reporters, don’t say anything.’

“The name of the game when you’re working in government is not to embarrass the government of the day,” said Mitchell. “It would have been pretty hard for them to come back with the conclusion that said, ‘Yeah, people are asking for information because they can’t get it any other way.’”

The report focuses on fiscal year 2005-2006 for its most in-depth analysis.

During that period, 340 requests for information were received.

Only 205 requests were provided by the government within the 30-day time period dictated by the act, with 130 exceeding that limit.

Almost 80 per cent of those refusals were attributed either solely or in part to possible infringements on personal privacy.

Pelchat has several explanations for the delays, the partial blocking of information and the spike in requests since 2002.

Applications often need to be refined, she said.

When presented with large costs for providing the information, applicants often decide to narrow their search, she said.

Third-party business information included in some searches and appeals of decisions also require lengthy reviews, she said.

“Ideally, we should be able to provide all responses within 30 days,” said Pelchat. “I would suggest most of those relate to personal information, and we have tried to accommodate and assist the applicant where we can.”

Similarly, the small number of requests that are granted in full doesn’t mean people aren’t receiving information, she said.

“Granted in full means absolutely every word and every document is released,” said Pelchat.

The spike in requests since 2002 is a result of lawyers seeking government information for residential school settlements, she explained.

Public bodies must apply the act fairly, said Pelchat.

But while there are few mandatory exceptions for refusing information being released — cabinet confidence, third-party business interests and personal privacy — departments have discretion to release information, she said.

Hank Moorlag, the Yukon ombudsman and information and privacy commissioner, has been critical of the government’s application of the ATIPP act in recent years.

In several reports to the Yukon legislature, Moorlag has detailed a trend towards secrecy rather than openness and has called for reviews.

As he prepares to retire from his post, that hasn’t changed.

“The requirement of the ATIPP act is to make public bodies more open and accountable,” said Moorlag in a recent interview.

“What we’re seeing is not the provisions of the act being used as the default for whether to disclose or not to disclose, but departmental policy.

“I think the explanation for that is introducing legislation without preparing departments and public officials for how the requirements of that legislation are going to have to be met,” he said.

“After 10 years with that legislation, there’s still lots of room for that to happen, for that investment, to have people buy into that concept that the default is openness; the default is disclosure of information.”

Moorlag is pushing for an amendment to the ATIPP act that would allow the government to waive fees when the information was in the public interest.

“Everything ought to be public information with the exception of very limited and specific exceptions,” he said.

In the report, Health and Social Services received the most requests for information between fiscal year 2005 and 2006.

The Justice, Education, Tourism and Energy, Mines and Resources departments completed the top five.

Lawyers are the most common group requesting information under the ATIPP act, with the public and the media in second and third.

More than three-quarters of the request between 2005 and 2006 were for personal information.

That fiscal year, people looking to get public information from the government were forced to pay $6,262.15 to access it.