Jun 062012
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Info commissioner's office as slow as rest of government.

by John Gordon Miller, Ryerson University

Canada's information commissioner made headlines this week when she handed out low grades to most federal government departments for how they respond to requests for information from members of the public.

Of the 18 departments Suzanne Legault rated, four received Cs (average), four received Ds (below average) and three gots Fs (failure). Legault warned that budget cuts could make the situation worse next year.

Good. She is right to be concerned. But the problem may be deeper than she thinks.

Why doesn't the information commissioner investigate the information commissioner's office? Why doesn't she perhaps have a chat with my good friend there, Pierre Dupuis?

Last November I got a letter from Dupuis under the letterhead of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada. He wanted to know if I was still interested in his office investigating my complaint about problems getting information from Natural Resources Canada.

Fine. That's what his office is supposed to do under the Access to Information Act: Investigate complaints. In fact, it is the central clearing house for all complaints against federal departments and agencies that stonewall requests, or else release so little information that it is frequently useless.

Only trouble was… I'd filed my complaint three years earlier, on December 2, 2008.

"I must advise you," Dupuis wrote, "that in order to continue this investigation, it will be necessary for you to contact our office by November 22, 2011, or provide this office with the appropriate contact information. Otherwise, we will consider the complaint abandoned, and close the investigation file."

So I phoned up Dupuis. I asked him in a calm voice what, exactly, was the difference between "closing the investigation" and not doing squat about my complaint for three years.

"Sir," Dupuis replied. "I have only recently been brought in and assigned to follow up on your complaint. I am not responsible for any delays that might have occurred."

"Delays have definitely occurred, M Dupuis," I said. "So it's your office, not you, that has the problem, is it?"

Unfortunately, the subtleties of sarcasm and irony are lost on someone as stalwart as Dupuis, and his voice turned distant and bureaucratic. "Re: the matter at hand, Mr. Miller. Do you wish us to investigate, or shall we close the file?"

"Knock your brains out on it, M Dupuis," I said. "I am glad my three-year-old complaint is now on your front burner, so to speak, and I look forward to its speedy resolution."

I did not tell him that I'd forgotten what information I was trying to get out of Natural Resources, it had been so long. I doubted that I or anyone else would be remotely interested in learning what Natural Resources had spent on a certain project to date, when it was now 2011 and they were going to provide me with numbers from 2008. But something perverse made me rise to the challenge of trying to light a little fire under M Dupuis, just to see if the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada was worthy of its name.

Dupuis promised to "get right on it," and we both made hopeful sounds on the phone before we disengaged. I believe I said that he had rekindled my hopes, and that I wished him good speed with the new wind now at his back.

Three months passed — well past the time that such complaints are supposed to be handled. No friendly phone call from Dupuis to advise on the progress he was making, even though my original complaint had been sitting in that office for three years. So I phoned him again.

"Mr. Miller," he said, after I'd given him the cumbersome 3207-07599/113320/001 file number he had assigned me. "What a coincidence. I was just drafting a letter to you. There's good news, I'm happy to report. They are willing to release more of the information you asked for."

"Hot damn, M Dupuis. I believe I am in your debt. When do you suppose I can actually receive it?"

He was just drafting the letter, he said. Why had this taken so long? I asked. He reminded me he had only recently been assigned to my file, and couldn't answer for three years of inaction.

That conversation was March 2. Now it is June 1, a rainy Friday afternoon. I have received nothing, not a phone call or letter from M Dupuis, nor the information from 2008. I have the same feeling I often have when dealing with the federal government — a mix of vague concern, grating anger and grim resignation. Time for another call to the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, although it is difficult to write those words now without inserting "ironically named".

Alarmingly, a recorded message greets me when I dial his direct line. It's his voice, saying "I will no longer be taking messages at this line." He gives another number, and I am routed through to a Mrs Billard.

"I don't want you to feel that I am hounding you," I begin. "But what happened to Dupuis? "

"Mr Dupuis is taking some time off," she says vaguely. "We haven't reassigned his files yet."

"But I've been dealing exclusively with Dupuis. Three months ago, he told me he'd made a breakthrough."

Billard says she doesn't know anything about the letter he said he was writing to me. I ask her to check but she says she can't. "We're still working on paper here." She alludes to "staffing and volume issues," and a large backlog of complaints.

I say I know. My complaint is from 2008.

"Oh," she says, "Don't feel bad. One of my colleagues is working on a complaint from 2003. We're almost at the 10-year anniversary!"

Billard promises to get back to me.

I'm not going to hold my breath.

About John Gordon Miller

John Gordon Miller has been an award-winning reporter, a senior news executive, chair of a journalism school, an author, a teacher, a researcher and a consultant. He's been professor of journalism at Ryerson for 21 years, following a 20-year career as an editor and reporter. Most of that was spent at the Toronto Star, where he was foreign editor, founding editor of the Sunday Star, weekend editor, deputy managing editor, and acting managing editor. He is author of Yesterday's News, a critique of daily newspapers in Canada. He is active as an expert witness in legal cases involving journalism.

© Copyright 2012 John Gordon Miller, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

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