Canada’s Access to Information Act leaves grad students out in the cold

When I get back to Ottawa in a few weeks, I have waiting for me a package of documents I requested from the Privy Council Office (PCO) about Canada’s attempts to implement the 1996 WIPO Internet treaties. I asked for them through Canada’s Access to Information process at least two years ago (if I recall correctly; it’s been so long that I figured that I wouldn’t be getting anything from them before I graduated).

Why the delay? According to the Globe and Mail, reporting on a report from the Access to Information Commissioner:

The PCO receives a “D” ranking for posting some of the longest completion times in government. The council is also causing delays for access response times in other departments, which must seek PCO’s advice on whether certain matters should be exempt as cabinet confidences.

This bottleneck is partly due to the fact that only four staff are assigned at PCO to manage the entire workload of deciding what is or is not a cabinet confidence.

At least I’m not alone.
Four staffers. It’s almost as if the government and bureaucracy don’t want to release any information. But that would be crazy talk.
As for what my wait got me, I’m not optimistic: My last information requests (they’re all back in Ottawa, so I can’t remember which departments were involved) got me a whole slew of press clippings and documents freely available on the government’s websites.
There’s a talent to filling out access requests to ensure that you get actual information in a timely(ish) manner. Simon Doyle got a fantastic book on the 2005 attempt to implement the WIPO Internet treaties out of his requests (I’ve used some of the files he received under the Access to Information Act, and his reporting will likely figure prominently in my Canadian case study), Michael Geist regularly finds some nice info, and Ken Rubin has made a career out of making access requests.
Each of these fellows, however, have one thing in common: they’ve been doing this for a long time. Doyle (whose book was based on his M.A. journalism thesis) was working as a reporter for the Hill Times, Geist has been following copyright and digital policy for over a decade as a professor at the University of Ottawa, and Rubin’s name has been showing up in newspapers for as long as I can remember.
Graduate and doctoral students (a.k.a. the people who are supposed to be producing Canada’s cutting-edge research) aren’t so lucky. Not only are they new to the research game, the time-limited nature of their research (one-to-two years for a Master’s student, three-to-four years for a PhD student) means that any information that they do get could easily show up after they’ve completed their degree.
And God forbid the researcher’s request isn’t sufficiently specific and has to re-file a request for the correct information. When a researcher has short timelines and a lot of balls in the air, the Access to Information process can be a one-shot proposition.
Either way, the government will have effectively waited out the scholar, making Access to Information requests an unreliable, if not completely useless, source for graduate and doctoral students. At least that’s been my experience.
That the very people who think about how government does and should run are stymied and often kept completely from the information they need for sound analyses should concern anyone who likes intelligent policy and accountable government. There’s something very wrong with Canada’s Access to Information regime when finding out basic information about your democratically elected and accountable government is a talent and not a right.
Students and researchers: How useful has Canada’s Access to Information regime been for your research? Have you found it as frustrating as me, or has it been a valuable source of information? Feel free to weigh in below.
Update, April 13, 2:26 p.m.: Ouch. I missed this chart, providing information-access grades for various government departments. None of the ones I’ve dealt with came off very well, except Industry (B, or “above average”): Privy Council Office (D, “below average”), Canadian Heritage (F, “unsatisfactory”) and Foreign Affairs, which apparently broke their grading scheme (off chart, “red alert”).
It looks like my big mistake was deciding to study something that touched on foreign affairs and the PCO, rather than, say Justice, and Citizenship and Immigration issues (both rated A, or “outstanding”: congratulations to those responsible for doing a hard job so well). Of course, given the centralization of power in the hands of the prime minister, is there any federal-political subject of any importance that doesn’t involve the PCO?
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One Response to Canada’s Access to Information Act leaves grad students out in the cold

  1. A reader writes:I submitted a request when I started my PhD in 2004. I've now graduated and moved on to my postdoc, and the information is only now coming in. Of course, it's useless; everything I'm interested in is blacked out. I spent about $400 on the process, which involved DFAIT losing my mailed in fee and therefore closing my request without notifying me and refusing to answer my emails asking what was going on for 6 months before telling me it was closed; a complaint to the (useless) Access to Information Commissionner who sided with DFAIT because I couldn't remember (two years after the fact) whether I had submitted my fee as a cheque or by credit card; a re-opened request (paid my fee in person this time) which, a year later, had to be re-submitted in smaller (cheaper) pieces (after useful advice from the Information Commissioner who let me know this was a possible alternative to paying hundreds more dollars to complete one large request; DFAIT didn't tell me that); and, after another year or two, a second divying-up into smaller pieces. The results are completely useless, and not only because my dissertation was completed long ago; my $400 got me a lot of black ink.

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