Deadlines routinely whoosh by

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Provincial government responds to requests in its own time

Ed Ring

The provincial government is regularly failing to respond to requests for information within timelines set in the Access to Information and Privacy Protection Act.

It is also giving no explanations for why it is ignoring the law.

On Tuesday, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner issued a statement along with its latest case report, lamenting the state of affairs when it comes to public bodies responding to information requests.

“From time to time, my office has received complaints about a failure on the part of a government department or agency to meet these time limits, but for some reason there seems to be a lot more of this happening now than ever before, and I’m concerned about it,” said information and privacy commissioner Ed Ring.

He noted 12 such cases are currently active with his office — an all-time high for this type of case.

Having responses delayed by months with no explanation has become the new norm, according to members of Ring’s staff.  

Response should only take 30 days

“Applicants are being left hanging for months after filing a request that should usually only take 30 days to process, and in some cases no one from the public body is even bothering to pick up the phone and let the applicant know what’s going on with their request,” Ring said.

The law says the government is expected to issue some kind of response within 30 days to anyone asking for information.

In the latest case reviewed, a request was made to the Department of Health and Community Services on March 28, 2012. On April 4, the person filing the request received an email saying the response would be about 270 pages in total.

Two months later, the documents had still not been sent. A month past that, the person asking for the information took the case to the commissioner’s office. Both the individual and the commissioner’s office received a copy of the requested documents on July 13, 2012.

Ring found the delayed response to be in violation of the Access to Information and Privacy Protection Act and said he is watching what he considers to be a trend.

“One of the main purposes of access to information is to make public bodies more accountable to the public. This purpose would certainly be undermined if disclosure of records was intentionally delayed so that government could not be legitimately questioned on issues of public importance in the House of Assembly,” he noted in his latest report.

“In many cases information requested by applicants is needed for a specific purpose which is often time sensitive.”

One of the cases before Ring is being pressed by The Telegram.

This reporter filed a request for information with the Department of Natural Resources’ appointed information co-ordinator, with questions pertaining to that department.

The request was received on May 16, 2012, as acknowledged by a letter.

On May 28, the government sought clarification, suggesting a response to the request as worded would be both time consuming for staff and costly for The Telegram. By June 1, a revised wording was settled upon.

There was no response to the request within 30 days.

In the weeks that followed, regular calls were made to ask about the status of the request. On Aug. 6, The Telegram was told it would be just one to two weeks more.

On Nov. 9 — over five months from the initial request and after the paper had contacted the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner — a written response came.

“I am pleased to inform you that your request for access to these records has been granted,” reads the cover letter, signed by deputy minister Charles Bown.

The accompanying documentation was almost 50 pages, including several marked with simply a giant “X” and the word “redacted.”

In his letter, Bown made no mention of the delay in responding.

The Telegram has pressed a formal review of the case, requesting an explanation for the delayed response. That review is still in progress.

The government was expected to provide a response to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner on Jan. 4, but received an extension to Jan. 11.

Meanwhile, there were questions on the documents provided and the government recommended a followup request be filed.

That request was received by the government Nov. 16, 2012. To date, well past 30 days, there has been no response.

If sent to the Information and Privacy Commissioner, it would be the 13th case before him based on an absence of response within the legislated timeline.

“There is a saying in the access to information world that ‘access delayed is access denied’ — sometimes applicants need information within a certain period of time or it is simply no good to them anymore. I feel it is necessary for me to publicly call on all public bodies and remind them of their responsibilities under the act,” said Ring.

“If they cannot do their work within the time frames set out in the (act), they are undermining the very purpose of the law.”

The Telegram attempted to reach Ring at his office following the release of his statement and latest case, but was told he was out of the province on a family matter.

The paper was offered responses to questions stemming from the news release — off the record.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

 

Organizations: Office of the Information, Department of Health and Community, The Telegram Department of Natural Resources

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Recent comments

  • Daniel Corbett
    January 10, 2013 - 13:44

    Bill 29 reflects the contempt that the current Tory government has toward openness, transparency and your right to know. With regard to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner! It definitely is not the champion of openness and transparency. It is actually one more bureaucratic road block between you and the information you seek, a staging area to send a fool further along an unending road. The feeble attitude of this office toward access to information is in no small measure the cause of the current state of affairs. The above article is an attempt by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to distance itself from an unsustainable state of affairs, which it created, through its pathetic attempt at fulfilling its mandate.

  • Ashley Fitzpatrick
    January 09, 2013 - 09:33

    Just based on early comments here, the timeline for response is an issue regardless of changes in the Act in the last year. For example, the initial request from The Telegram fell under the old version, the follow-up request under the new. In both cases, there was a 30-day period for initial response. Under the new Act, whoever is responding to a request has a bit more opportunity to receive extensions in the timelines. However, any extension still has to be communicated.

  • KD
    January 09, 2013 - 07:06

    Bill 29 and the new secrecy act will be the end of the pc party in nl I have voted pc in the past but I want any government I vote for to be open and transparent and since the mhas spending spree most voters are now aware of the corruption when there is no accountabilty if bill 29 is not rescinded i will not be voting pc in the next election I will even campaign against tnem

    • sc
      January 09, 2013 - 08:09

      This is the sort of behaviour one would expect of an incompetent, arrogant government whose ministers and civil servants are either too lazy to do their jobs, or feel that they are above the law and can simply ignore the people who they promised to serve. I think the provincial government should just admit that it can't govern and turn the responsibility for running this province over to the federal government. (Mind you, Mr. (Steve) Haper has no less contempt for Canadians that does our Premier and her followers so perhaps the solution would be to find another country that would be willing to manage NL). On another note, what's the point of having an 'Access to Information and Privacy Protection Act' if the government can simpy ignore it with impunity?