New Access to Information policy could discourage requests

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault today revealed that all government departments will, by the end of the year, be required to post records released under the Access to Information Act on their websites.

Legault referred to the new open-government policy tangentially in testimony before the House of Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee related to her ongoing legal battle with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

On its face, the policy sounds like an excellent one — more information about government will become public. Indeed, some departments — Defence and Health among them — are already doing this.

But there is an unanticipated consequence of the policy that should concern journalists who use the open-records law: it could discourage them from filing ATIP requests because will lose any exclusivity they had on the responses.

Filing ATIPs is a time-consuming and sometimes expensive undertaking that often requires a lengthy negotiations and appeals to get the records released. Moreover, generating the ideas to request certain records are a skill set that is part of my job. I don’t want to give it away.

I find this is especially true requesting electronic records, which I often do.

Consider this example: In 2007, I filed a request with a mainline government department for a copy of the database used to administer a particularly contentious program. My request was denied outright. I had to file an appeal with Legault’s predecessor, John Reid. It sat on the shelf until earlier this year, when her office facilitated negotiaitons with department that eventually resulted in the release of the data to me.

I have spent a lot of time on this request and it will take a lot more research and discussion with the department for me to fully understand what the data shows, then turn it into a news story that will inform readers.  I can only rationalize this to my editors with the possibility that it will result in a news story that is exclusive to my newspaper.

However, the department has told me the records I have fought for four years to obtain will soon be posted on their website. Any exclusivity I have will be gone.

In other data requests, I have paid hundreds of dollars of the Citizen’s money for government computer technicians to extract the records. Again, I do this expecting that it might result in an exclusive news story.

But if these records are posted on the departments’ websites, all my competitors can have it.

As a result, I will have to rush to get a story out and, likely, my work will not be as thorough as would be if I knew I had the information exclusively.

Government will soon learn that it pays to get potentially embarrassing information in ATIP records out quickly, to dilute its potential news value to one news organization.

There is a simple solution to this that I have yet to hear Legault or anyone else discuss. Requests should be made public and posted on departmental websites, but only 30 days after the requester receives the records.

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