Right to Know highlights gaps in access to information law

The Yukon’s 11-year-old Access To Information Legislation Protection of Privacy Act needs a facelift, say privacy watchdogs.

The Yukon’s 11-year-old Access To Information Legislation Protection of Privacy Act needs a facelift, say privacy watchdogs.

 “The process needs to be easier, more accessible and it needs to be more streamlined — no question,” said information and privacy commissioner Tracy-Anne McPhee.

The legislation came into effect in 1996 and has made the government and public institutions more open and accountable.

But a decade later, it has yet to be reviewed, said McPhee.

Across Canada, governments are coming to grips with a shift in focus from a cultural of secrecy to one of openness, she added.

“I think the government and government agencies are starting to come around and understand that they hold the information they do in the public interest and that information is therefore owned by the individual public.”

Right to Know Week, which ends today, is promoting access to information as a way of keeping governments transparent.

A study released earlier this year found almost 40 per cent of people who requested information from the Yukon government were forced to wait beyond a 30-day time limit set by the act.

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

The office of the information and privacy commissioner reviews access to information requests made by the public that have been denied by government departments.

While the government has made small steps towards more accountability and openness, such as requiring each government department staff an access to information co-ordinator, the act needs to be reviewed, said McPhee.

“The commissioner before me urged them to review the ATIP act and I would urge them to do the same thing with respect to taking another look after 10 years and modernizing the approach.

“The more public bodies that are accountable to the community and the more access people have, the more responsible the government becomes.”

As the information and privacy commissioner from 1997 to 2007, Hank Moorlag was often critical of the government for its unwillingness to strengthen the legislation.

But he does believe the access to information act has improved accountability.

 “It’s a matter of democratic maturity for a government to actually be open in a way that this legislation intends, and to not only willing tolerate but welcome criticism,” said Moorlag.

“(Access to information) puts a very important tool in the hands of the ordinary citizen who will be able to know and understand what the government is doing on things that affect them.

“It’s been around for 10 years now. It’s not that new. But I’ve seen some growth to a point where information in made available through routine disclosure without people having to make a formal request through the act.”

There is still plenty of room to improve the legislation to make it easier for people to get at the information they are searching for, but there is a lack of political will to do so, said Moorlag.

“It’s very difficult to bring up the act for review,” he said.

“A full review of the act is seen as a huge undertaking. And review of other pieces of legislation has not gone well — you think about the education act, the children’s act, the workers’ compensation act. I think there is a reluctance to bring another act and go through that difficult process, especially if it includes public consultation, which I’ve argued it should.

“People should exercise that right to hold governments accountable. I think sometimes we take that democratic right for granted.”

McPhee agrees progress on opening up the government and public bodies has been slow since the act came into effect in 1996.

Over the years, other jurisdictions have expanded their legislation to make it applicable to private business, municipalities and educational institutions.

But the Yukon has been slow to implement similar changes.

“We’re trying to do more public education so that people understand access is the rule and secrecy should be the exception,” she said.

Changing the way people inside government think about access to information is a long process, said McPhee.

They are the people who make the mistakes or might find it difficult to do their jobs properly when the public is closely watching, she said.

More guidelines are needed for the people who work in the access to information areas of government, added McPhee.

“Technology is changing daily. And there is an opportunity to gather, store and disseminate that information in ways that have never existed,” she said.

“It’s important public bodies are held responsible for information that they hold about individuals.”