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COVID-19 pandemic highlights need to document decisions: Information commissioner

OTTAWA — The federal information czar says the shift to doing government work at home is underscoring a need to ensure decisions are properly documented.

OTTAWA — The federal information czar says the shift to doing government work at home is underscoring a need to ensure decisions are properly documented.

Information commissioner Caroline Maynard is concerned the use of instant messaging, email and team-sharing tools might mean some communications slip though the digital cracks.

Maynard is an ombudsman for users of the Access to Information Act, which allows people who pay $5 to request government records ranging from briefing notes to meeting minutes.

However, the law doesn't require federal agencies to create records, only to provide what they have.

During a panel discussion on International Right to Know Day, Maynard noted commissioners have been pressing the government to usher in a formal duty to document its decisions.

The idea has resurfaced as a result of the move to makeshift work arrangements during the pandemic, she said Monday during the virtual discussion, organized by the Public Service Information Community Connection.

Maynard said her investigators are looking into cases in which people are seeking federal information shared through online discussions. Unlike the days when notes might have been written on paper, it means asking new questions.

"Is it being videotaped? Is it being recorded somehow? Is somebody taking minutes?" Maynard said.

"We're raising this with institutions, too. If you are going to be using these tools, and it's going to help you do your work from home, make sure that you are still following and meeting your obligations under the act, which is having some kind of record of what's being decided, what's being discussed. So that if somebody makes an access request, it can be accessible."  

Some federal agencies have used the disruption of the pandemic "as an excuse" not to fulfil their obligations to requesters under the access law, Maynard said.

"A few institutions actually completely closed their office and were not able to answer requests."

This has forced Maynard to remind federal agencies that nothing in the federal law allows the provisions to simply be placed on hold.

Several organizations, including the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, Transparency International and Access Info Europe, marked Right to Know Day by calling on governments to ensure COVID-19 is not a pretext for limiting access to records.

"Legal and practical processes for accessing information should now be restored to pre-pandemic levels and even improved upon."

The transparent and timely sharing of information with the public is crucial for protecting public health, preventing corruption, safeguarding democratic institutions and improving policy- and decision-making, the statement added.

"While many governments have found ways to return to normal operations despite challenges created by the pandemic, freedom of information requests continue to be delayed or refused."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2020.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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