The Yukon government is proposing a series of changes to the territory’s access to information laws including to provide more training for departmental co-ordinators, make more information public and repeal a handful of changes made by the previous government in 2012.
They also want to add a new rule that would allow information requests to be denied if they are deemed to be too much work to answer. The changes would also reduce the amount of time cabinet deliberations are kept secret from 15 years to 10.
The government is running an online survey from now until July 20 to get public feedback on the proposed changes to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy (ATIPP) Act. Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn has promised amending the act will be part of the next sitting of the legislative assembly but says it could take a couple of years for regulations to be written before the new act comes into affect.
A major change is being proposed to the Yukon’s records manager position. Aside from a title bump — the job will now be called access and privacy officer — the person would get expanded powers and provide “more checks into the system,” said David Downing, the director of corporate information management.
Currently if someone has complaints about a response those are all handled by the Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner.
Under the proposed new legislation, citizens will also be able to complain to the new access and privacy officer.
He or she will do “some form of ongoing check on responses” to make sure they meet consistent standards, Downing said, and also offer “ongoing and regular training for the ATIPP co-ordinators” who respond to requests within each department.
Under the new rules, the access and privacy officer will also have the authority to deny an information request if it is deemed to take too much “research and collation,” he said.
Downing said the office sometimes gets requests that are too broad — someone wanting all the territory’s information on moose, for example — that the time taken to fulfill those requests, and the cost to the requester, makes them impractical.
“Questions that are overly broad and require substantial … collation and research result in excessive estimates of cost. They don’t serve the best interest of the requestor or the public body,” he said.
Downing said the definition of what qualifies as too much will not be written into the legislation itself and will instead be part of a separate government policy that he promised will be public.
Individual departments would not be able to decide whether a request was excessive, Downing said. Only the access and privacy officer could do that “and quite frankly they would never deny it without advice from legal services,” he said.
He said the access and privacy officer is “is not answerable to a deputy minster or an assistant deputy minister … all they do is interpret the act and apply it.”
The decision to deny a request can be reviewed, and subsequently overturned, by the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
The current commissioner, Diane McLeod-McKay, said in a email that she has been consulted and is working with the Department of Highways and Public Works on the draft. She said she would have comments once the draft is finalized.
Both opposition parties were sceptical of how that new clause could be used.
“If you’re digging far back (for information) there’s going to be work involved,” NDP MLA Kate White said.
“Actions will speak louder than words,” said Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers. “The Liberals have talked a good line on improving transparency but depending on the fine print of this area it appears to be a area where it could actually allow them to curtail information.”
Both White and Cathers said they will be looking closely at the legislation as more information becomes public.
Mostyn acknowledged a government could abuse the new rule but said it was designed to deal with overly-broad requests.
“You honed in on a potential restriction but we have also put in other tools and controls that mean you’ll get more access,” he said.
The government is promising to repeal three changes to the ATIPP act that were made by the previous government in 2012. That includes the rule that keeps all ministerial briefing notes away from the public.
Those will be accessible through an ATIPP request, Mostyn said.
Mostyn said the plan is to also limit the documents that can be completely exempt from requests.
“In the past we could say this is confidential cabinet information and we would exempt the entire records,” he said, calling that “using an elephant gun to kill a squirrel.”
Now the government will be “more surgical” and exempt just parts of documents as opposed to the whole thing, he said.
The Liberals are also promising to repeal the section of the act allows information to be withheld if it would reveal “consultations or deliberations involving officers or employees of a public body or a Minister relating to the making of government decisions or the formulation of government policy.”
Cathers criticized the government for claiming it wanted to be more transparent while still using the parts of the act they now insist they want to get rid of.
“If the government is criticizing these changes, why did they spend 30 per cent of their mandate using every single one of them?” he said.
Cathers was also critical of the government’s promise to make more information public proactively.
Mostyn said the plan is to mandate certain pieces of information be released automatically. Details of what exactly that information could be are still being decided. It could include publishing final audit reports, he said, when asked for an example.
Cathers said he agrees there is “room to improve” proactive disclosure and online information sharing but said that doesn’t require a legislative change.
“They could have given that direction through policy direction to departments,” he said.
Other changes promised for the act include:
— clearly defining which public bodies are covered under the act,
— allowing members of the public to control how their information is shared,
— changing the fee structure that decides how much it costs to pay for a request.
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