New federal web portal for freedom-of-info expanding with 16 new departments

OTTAWA – The federal government plans to expand its web portal for online information requests, with 16 new departments added over the next six months.

A pilot project, launched April 9, enabled the online filing of access-to-information and privacy requests, and the electronic payment of fees.

It offers citizens a digital alternative to a paper-based system dating from the early 1980s.

The pilot currently includes just three departments — Treasury Board, Shared Services Canada, and Citizenship and Immigration — but the service will eventually be expanded to cover all of government over the next few years.

In the first five months of the pilot, almost 11,000 information requests passed through the portal, virtually all of them for Citizenship and Immigration, some 7,800 of which were access-to-information requests.

Citizenship and Immigration has long attracted the highest number of access and privacy requests of any federal department, as individuals and their legal counsel are required to use these laws to view their own immigration files.

The department had already established an online payment option in January 2012, enabling requesters to pay their $5 application fees for access-to-information requests by credit card. (Privacy requests are free.) Forms could then be scanned and emailed.

The pilot project this year built on Citizenship and Immigration’s existing online solutions, and after five months, more than 60 per cent of all information requests at the three institutions were arriving via the web.

The pilot has so far cost at least $140,000 in technology upgrades.

“For the first time, Canadians are able to exercise their right of access with greater ease by requesting information online without having to print, complete and mail in paper forms and a cheque,” Kelly James, a Treasury Board spokesperson, said in an email.

“Furthermore, there is substantial benefit to Canadians and to the government of Canada in terms of cost associated with the electronic processing of the administrative fee.”

James did not indicate which departments will next be joining the web portal. But internal Treasury Board documents show that Health Canada, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and the Correctional Service of Canada likely are among the digital newcomers.

Treasury Board officials, who are spearheading the initiative, were initially fretful that the online ease of filing might swamp government, especially with “vexatious or frivolous” requests, say the internal documents, obtained through access-to-information.

Officials consulted with the office of the privacy commissioner, which had instituted its own web portal in August 2012 for the online filing of privacy complaints.

The privacy office reported no “measurable” number of “vexatious or nuisance complaints” arriving because of the digital option, but noted the total number of complaints rose by about 10 per cent, many of them filed “in the heat of the moment.”

Statistics in the first weeks of the pilot project suggested the new information-request portal was simply “a change in how Canadians submit requests and (there was) not a measurable increase in the numbers of requests submitted.”

James, however, says there has indeed been an increase attributed to the web option, though did not provide numbers.

The web portal for information requests is but one facet of the “Open Government” initiative touted by Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who has been more focused on making thousands of government databases freely available online.

Canada’s information commissioner, long an advocate for online options for access-to-information requests, says she welcomes the expansion of the pilot project to include more departments, including her own someday.

But Suzanne Legault says the Conservative government also urgently needs to update the Access to Information Act, which has not had a major overhaul since coming into force in 1983, in the pre-digital age.

“In terms of the bigger ‘Open Government’ picture … I wrote to Minister Clement last month to urge the government to include the modernization of the Access to Information Act as a key commitment,” Legault said.

“There cannot be a truly open government without a strong and effective Access to Information Act.”

Critics have assailed the Conservative government’s record on access to information, noting that Canada now is considered a global laggard on transparency when once it was a leader.

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