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ATI workshop 13 Oct. 2011 Jeff Sallot Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication




“Secrecy is for losers.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan

“Secrecy is for losers” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan I love this quote. It gets right to the point. You probably best remember  Moynihan as the US senator from New York who was succeeded by Hilary Clinton. But he also held a number of government posts under both Republican and Democratic administrations going back to JFK, including ambassador to the UN. But I think his best legacy may be the work he did as the chair of a congressional commission on the uses and abuses of governmental secrecy. In Canada, our equivalent would be the late Jed Baldwin, who was a Tory MP from Peace River and really is the godfather of our own access to information law. The whole open government movements and the access to information phase of it really came out of the Watergate scandals in the United States and the security service scandals within the RCMP in the 1970s. Journalists of course played a major role in exposing both Watergate and the RCMP scandals. So here in Canada journalists and their news organizations were lobbyists for  an access to information act.



Who uses ATI?

Unfortunately, what we see now is that fewer journalists are actually using the act and there are reasons reasons for that. But also of concern is the fa fact ct that large news organizations are not as active as they could be in promoting reforms of  our act.



Canada is falling behind

Our own Access act took effect on Canada Day July 1, 1983 and broadly speaking it provides a right of access to information contained in records under the control of government institutions. Believe it or not, Canada was considered one of the world pioneers in the open government area back in 1983. We've fallen behind, sadly. And in fa fact ct I was recently at an international conference in Mexico City on open government. It was embarrassing to realize that Mexico of all countries has a better legal framework for access to information then does Canada. The right of access is enshrined now in the Mexican Constitution. Suzanne Legault, our own access commissioner, and she also spoke at this conference. She said that in comparison to newer access regimes in many countries, like Mexico and Chile, our access act is like a venerable older lady who needs a hip replacement. But what the Canadian government is offering in terms of reform is more like a botox treatment. Putting a prettier face on may not be all bad, but a hip replacement would be better. Our own access act is not constitutionally entrenched. It’s only a statute of  Parliament and can be amended for better or worse with relative ease when there is a majority government.



Principles !

Records should be open by right


Exceptions must really be exceptional


Censorship is reviewable by an independent party

Our own access act is not constitutionally entrenched. It’s only a statute of  Parliament and can be amended for better or worse with relative ease when there is a majority government. What I want to do this morning in this 1st session is to run through the mechanics of the act, outline who is covered by the act, and begin to look at strategies for using the act. We'll get into strategies in greater detail in our 2nd session later this morning. The Canadian act reflects 3 principles. One, that governmen governmentt information should be available to the public. I would go even further than this and I would argue that the information belongs to the public in i n the first place and we ought to be thinking of this as public access to publicly owned information. The 2nd broad principle in our act is that there may be a need for exceptions to the right of access but that they should be very limited and very specific. In other words access should be the default position and exceptions really should be exceptional.  And the 3rd principal is that of of review. That in fact when an an exception to access is invoked there should be a review by a person or a body that is independent of government. And this is the main function of the access to information Commissioner and her office.



The court says: “The overarching purpose of access to information legislation is to facilitate democracy …”

So we don't have a specific constitutional or charter right to access. But the Supreme Court has said in some very strong language that access is a very important part of our democratic structure. Fourteen years ago ago there was a case decided unanim unanimously ously by the Su Supreme preme Court which stated the principle this way. And this is a decision written by Justice Laforest. “The overarching purpose of access to information legislation is to facilitate democracy by helping to ensure that citizens have the information required to participate meaningfully in the democratic process and that politicians and bureaucrats remain accountable to the citizenry. citizenry.”” Majority governments, in my experience, find it all too easy to say that they are accountable at the ballot box and just leave it at that. But the Supreme Court has said that it's more than just accountability through elections and the parliamentary process. They are in effect saying ordinary citizens have this right all the time.



Who can file? !



Legal residents


Canadian businesses

Who actually has the right to use the access to information act? Any Canadian citizen whether you are living here or living abroad. So your Washington correspondent can make a request under the Canadian act. If you y ou are a Canadian citizen you can file under the act.  And anyone who is a permanent resident of Canada. Canada. This would include people here under the immigration act and refugee protection act. Corporate bodies with a Canadian presence can also file fil e requests. And believe me they do. Once you get into this you’ll also discover there is a cottage industry here in Ottawa of law firms and lobbyists filing for corporate clients. The requester of  information is a lawyer or maybe the paralegal but the ultimate customer is a Corporation, maybe even a foreign corporation..

So corporate interests are frequent users. This is particularly true with large defense contracts at stake.



Routine information

The act has a provision that is of particular interest for journalists. It says that a formal request should not be a reason to withhold the release of information that normally would be made public. In other words you should be able to call up government officials and get them to provide you with routine information rather than making you go through a formal request. And we ll talk about this some more when we discuss search strategies. !



The clock ticks for 30 days

The act says that the government institution must respond to a request within 30 days. That's 30 calendar days beginning from the day after a request is received. So in theory if you ask for information today about some government activity you should have the information no later than a month from today. We know that in practice this is rarely the case and we will talk about delays later. Nevertheless, the act says the the government has 30 days to respond. A response can be very minimal. It can be as minimal as acknowledging the fact that they received your request. And that's usually part of a letter saying that they are seeking an extension for any number of reasons.



“I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

From time to time you’ll run across someone at a departmental access unit who’ll call up and ask you whether you can amend your request to make it more focused. That official may be trying to be helpful. But be wary. An amended request can be treated as a new request, starting the 30-day clock again at day one. Clarify whether this will be the case. And if it is, let your  original request stand and then file a separate new request along the lines of  the helpful suggestions from the bureaucrat.




The access act originally did not cover Crown corporations and parliamentary agencies like the access commissioners office itself. But in 2007 the minority Harper government amended the act to bring Crown corporations under the act and agencies like the access commissioner's office. Since then by the way the information i nformation Commissioner's office has become something of a showcase for best practices in government. The 2007 amendment provided that the CBC did not have to disclose discl ose information of her journalistic nature or relating to operations. The idea was to make sure CBC journalists did not have to identify confidential sources or prematurely make public the stories its reporters were working on. This provision is now before the courts with the strange and ironic twist that the Commissioner is trying to get the CBC to disclose information, at least to her, so that she can make a determination of whether the CBC is properly invoking the journalistic exception. As you may know, CBC has been flooded with requests requests from other media organizations.. It seems everyone wants to know what Peter Mansbridge is organizations paid.




Now I'm going to run you through the basic mechanics mechanics of filing a request. Like all things bureaucratic there is of course a form you can fill out.

The form even has a Treasury Board numb number er 350 350–57. –57. It’s got little boxes to tick and lines to sign and it looks a lot simpler than it is. But I'm going to suggest that you do not use the form. Most requests made by  journalists really are more complex than the small bit of space on the Treasury Board form describing the details of what you're looking for.



What’s the address? ! - list of access coordinators

You can instead send a letter. So if you begin your search with the letter you can provide a lot of additional background information that might help the government agency locate what it is you're looking for. But what you want to make sure is that your letter states very clearly in the 1st paragraph that you are making a request under the access to information act. Now where'd you find the address that you're supposed to send your request to? Each government department, agency and Crown Corporation has an access to information office and at least one official who is designated as the access coordinator. The website for government departments also has listed somewhere the coordinates for the access official. They are frequently lumped together with privacy and in fact in many government institutions the processing of privacy act and access to information act requests is done by the same branch. You’ll hear references to ATI and ATIP used interchangeably. You usually have to drill down a couple pages from the department’s homepage to actually get the address or the phone number orf the fax number of the access coordinator. You can often find this information under the about us page or about the department page on the website.  At a minimum what you'll see is the snail mail address for the access coordinator. This is not terribly convenient for journalists who move in a somewhat faster pace than Canada post. What's not generally disclosed is the fact that you can file an access request by fax. Some departments will even accept one online.



Fees Cheaper than a pumpkin latte

The tricky part is the $5 access request filing fee. If you're filing by fax or by e-mail you will have to provide a credit card number and authorization to charge $5 to that card. The $5 filing fee is discretionary. In other words a government department or agency can waive the fee. But in fact very few do. If you do file by snail mail and use a hardcopy check it must be made out to the Receiver General of Canada. The $5 fee is a bit of an irritant. But it's not onerous and it hasn't been raised from the $5 level since the act was enacted in 1983. What you might want to consider is to bundle two or more access requests to the same the you same letter. But make clear that you want each request treateddepartment separately.inAnd pay $5 for each and every request in the letter. That $5 also entitles you to five hours of search time by a knowledgeable employee of the department to search for the records you are requesting and to prepare them for  release. The department can charge you for additional hours at the rate of $10 an hour. If money is an issue make sure your original request specifies that you are to be notified if there are going to be any additional fees. You can also ask about the credentials and knowledge of the department the searcher actually has. They can’t delay a request because of the need for additional search time if it is some summer  intern or a temp who is doing the search. While we are talking about fees you might want to word your request to say you are seeking access to the documents and not copies of the documents in the first instance. That way you won’t get slapped with heavy photocopy charges for  thousands of pages of documents you don’t really want or need. You are entitled under the law to come to the department and inspect the material that is being released and you can then specify what pages you want copies of.



Your privacy right

If you are making requests regularly to the same department you might want to create a template letter with boilerplate wording.. You also might want to consider whether you want to divulge the fact you are from a news organization. The law says that the identity i dentity of the person making the request is covered by the privacy act. That means that the access coordinator and his or her officials are not supposed to be telling anyone else els e in the department or the ministers office who's asking for the information. Depending on how much faith you have in the integrity of the access coordinator in any one department you might find this uncomfortable. There are all sorts of legitimate ways to mask your identity. If your byline is not well-known for example you might apply for information using your home address and home phone number or personal cell phone number. Or you might have an admin assistant file for you and use an address other than your  office address. On the other hand I think there are advantages to journalists revealing that they are behind a request.  And I'll get back to this later this morning morning



Take an all-government approach

So that's a very quick overview of basic mechanics of filing a simple request. Most of  your requests, however, are not going to be simple. But are there any questions about the getting started part before we move on to search strategies? Next we’re going to discuss some strategies for making a successful request. If you are on a beat you'll soon get to know a bit about the government departments involved. If you're beat’s environment for example you'll want to fully understand what environment Canada does, what it's different branches are responsible for, what its authority is under federal law, and what other government departments are involved on the same files. Energy and environmental issues are often closely linked for  example. Likewise trade and environment as we've seen with the asbestos situation. This means that the environment reporter has more to worry about than just one department. He or she may in fact need to go hunting in other departments as well.  And making a formal access request to several departments asking for the same kind of information can often be an effective strategy. If nothing else, it will speed up or  should speed up the consultation process among departments and agencies. Consultation is often an excuse for delay. So let's say you've just been assigned to the Parliamentary Bureau and your boss Tina Spencer has said she wants you to cover the foreign affairs and foreign policy beats. Obviously you'll need to know about the Department of foreign affairs and international trade over in the Pearson building on Sussex. But so much of Canada's foreign policy also involves military operations you will also need to have some familiarity with the Department of national Defense and the Canadian forces.



Open sources

Where to begin? The government phone book is not a bad place to begin. You can see how the department is organized and get a good idea idea of the range of its activities by flipping through it. The names of individuals may not be important. Officials move around a lot. You can get the latest listings for an individual bureaucrat that will be more current if you go to the GEDS site -- that's the government employee directory service site and the link to it if you don't have it already bookmarked is is on the worksh workshop op page at reportingl



Follow the money

Once you've done your first reconnaissance in the phone book you're ready to get into some greater detail by looking at the bluebook estimates and the info source listings for each department. The part two estimates are a way for you to follow the money. Always a good investigative investigati ve technique. The estimates can be a very rich source of story ideas. Particularly when you see how much money is being spent on programs that you've never heard about before and your readers don't even know they exist. The part three estimates are also good hunting ground. As you know part three plans and estimates priorities. outline departmental performance reports and reports on What's sometimes a very interesting exercise is to examine the department s reports on plans and priorities for the current fiscal year and compare it to those from previous years to see what's changed. !

This is helpful not just when there's been a change of government but also in the current situation to look at whether the government -- now that it has a majority -- is planning to go off in new directions in terms of policies or to abandon previous plans.



Learn the lingo

Each government bureaucracy has its own jargon, its own nomenclature. And while these may often be anodyne or even euphemistic they let you know as the reporter how they keep their records. And you learn the lingo in the estimates. This can speed up an access request if you can run it through their own gobbledygook translation machine.



Corrections !

Part III Estimates --


! --


correction services Part III

Let's take a look for a second at correctional services Canada and it's part three estimates. You'll see here a box of upcoming internal audits. Does anybody here cover corrections Canada? I think this will be an interesting beat under the Harper government given its law and order agenda. Here we see there is an internal audit called audit of practices to prevent/respond to deaths in custody. It's a performance assurance audits. And look at this? It's due to be completed in just a couple of weeks, Novemberr of this year. Armed with this information, you might actually be able to fill in a few blanks and Novembe get a story out of it if you can find out when it began why the audit was planned and whether they expected me to their completion dates. If they're going to miss the completion dates for example there must be a reason and if you can pry that reason out of the ministers office or less likely someone in the bureaucracy you've got the making of the story. At the very least you know but you don't want November  to slip into December before you file an access request for the audit of practices to prevent deaths in custody. The 3rd box down says audits of release detention process and it was to be completed last month there's one for the picking right now. The part three estimates also show there are a number of evaluations that are to take place over a threeyear period. Evaluations are generally broader in scope then audits. But there are a number of them here that look interesting. The evaluation for the strategic plan for aboriginal corrections is due next month. Here's another one I found scrolling down dealing with spiritual services and correctional interventions. What's that all about? There is to be an evaluation completed by March 2014, so it can't be that pressing an issue. Or maybe it is and this completion dates are really just a way to kick the can down the road.  At any rate you you are armed with information to begin your your search. If you click through from the correction services part 3 estimates page you eventually get a link to a treasury Board page that will give you a summary of capital spending 5 program activity for correctional services and you can see here the current fiscal years planned spending for the custody program is about $235 million more then it was in the last fiscal year and you can see numbers projected out to 2012 to 2014 so were going to see a lot of money being put into the cost of the program, The custody program is prisons. You can see no growth is projected whatsoever in spending on capital programs for community supervision.



Border Services -- border services evaluation report

Take a look for second at this evaluation study done at Canadian border  services on their admissibility screening and intelligence activities. Now this is a bit dated July 2009. Go to the key conclusions and recommendations managemen managementt response and you discover there are a lot of things wrong here.  An important thing to to remember is when you a are re looking at documents like this internal audits or evaluation reports these are not finished products that just suddenly appear on the designated deadline date. There is a whole process that goes on and that process in itself generates records that are accessible under the act. So very often a report like this it's really only a starting point to look for document suggesting what people thought the problem was in advance, what the mandate was of the people who were doing the evaluation, and the back-and-forth that takes place at meetings and you can find these in things like minutes or reports r eports of meetings. Sometimes the transactions are by e-mail and these also are records that can be accessed under the act.




What is one of the most common activities of bureaucrats? How about meetings? They love meetings. Departmental committees, intergovernmental task forces, you name it. My friend John Ibbitson says meetings are an excuse not to work. And bureaucrats love meetings. You’ll learn to love them too because they generate many records. Think of it. There are terms of reference for the group, agendas, briefing books, talking points, proposals, minutes, records of decision, work plans, follow up memos. So if you know some group in government is working on something that interests you ask for all of these things from their meetings.



Mandatory exemptions

Exemptions Let's talk the bit about the things that are more difficult to get your hands on because of the statutory exemptions in the act. Some of these things may rankle you as a journalist, but even hardened veterans of Ottawa political coverage come to understand that some of these actually make sense in particular  circumstances. The act talks about 2 kinds of exemption, mandatory and discretionary. The most significant mandatory exemptions are Cabinet confidence. So this is a classes based exemption. The record has to fall within that class and if it does the exemption is mandatory. Cabinet ministers get a flood of paper or digital material on issues that come before cabinet committees or full cabinet. Meetings. Remember? This material comes generally speaking in two parts. Factual background material. And secondly a recommendation to cabinet for a decision. Under the act you are entitled to see the background material once a decision has been reached and announced publicly. Or if  a decision has been reached but not been made public you can access the background material after  four of it. is now in its fifth year? Got any ideas about things they did four or more years The years. HarperThink government ago? This is also a good reminder that we need to follow our own stories. The follow ups are often more interesting than the first quick news hit. In addition to Cabinet confidences, there are a few more mandatory exemptions. Information obtained in confidence from a foreign country an international bodies like the UN or NATO, provincial governments a municipal government or an aboriginal governments.  As a quick aside, if an issue issue has a fed-prov fed-prov angle to it use use the provincial provincial acces access s acts to get their their take on issues. Likewise with municipalities. A lot of the most recent stuff about government spending in his riding on G-20 gazeboes etc. came from email accessed under municipal access law. Other mandatory exemptions include personal information about an individual other than the individual who made the request, information belonging to 3rd parties that contains trade secrets or scientific or  technical secrets, third-party investment information, and records resulting from policiang arrangements between provinces investigations investigati ons ranging andfrom the RCMP from police Mandatory investigations investigati exemptions ons to investigations investigat also include ionsrecords by the Commissioner from a variety of  of  lobbying, and investigati investigations ons by the public sector integrity Commissioner.



Discretionary exemptions

The discretionary exemptions, are those subject to an injury test. These include records dealing with federal provincial affairs, international affairs and defense, law-enforcement, security, investigations under the elections act, safety of individuals, purity clearances, information collected by corrections Canada or the parole board about an individual who is under sentence, records dealing with the economic interests of Canada, advice, testing procedures, tests and audits, internal audits, medical records and solicitor client privilege,. Remember the second category is discretionary and that means the head of the agency, and that usually means the deputy minister, has the discretion to release the material if he or she believes there is a greater good with disclosure them any harm that might result from disclosure. Sadly the history in Canada has been that Deputy ministers kind of think information belongs to them and to their officials and so in practice in the 1st instance these discretionary exemptions are almost always invoked. Even when there's been a change in the government. Some of you may remember the shouting match I got into with Harper shortly after he was sworn in because the Privy Council Office wasn’t releasing documents about Liberal David Dingwall’s lobbying activities. Under Paul Martin’s government the PCO invoked solicitor-client privilege because a justice department lawyer was at meetings where the Dingwall case was discussed. And Kevin Lynch, the clerk of the privy council, had his fingerprints all over the files. So even if a new government can benefit politically from the release that impulses often stymied by the permanent government, the mandarins, the bureaucracy. But what's important for you to know is that if a discretionary exemption is invoked that decision can be reviewed by the information Commissioner's office. In other words an independent authority has the ability to look at the records and decide whether or not the discretion has been applied correctly.  And you as as a reques requester ter can also challenge challenge a decision decision by the information commissioners commissioners office if you think they've got it wrong. You can take the case to the federal court for decision. The law describes the injury test this way “ information the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to be injurious to” the proper workings of government or national security or federal provincial relations and so on.



Injury Test

The Commissioner's office has adopted as its own policy very stringent injury test. Their policy says that the mere fact an exemption exists “does not require us to apply its to records. Rather if the harm caused by the release of the record is identifiable and imminent and this can be documented, then the discretionary exemption should be applied otherwise the records should be released. So a three question test. Is injury identifiable? Is it imminent? Can it be documented? That’s a tough standard. But even if the bureaucrats can say yes to all three questions they can be trumped if  there is a greater public good to be served by release. The information Commissioner's manual, which is something of a compilation of best practices, elaborates. It says that discretion should always be in favor of disclosure. In other words, there is a presumption of release being in the public interest. In other words, information belongs to the public not the bureaucrats. We bought it. We own it. The general purpose of the act is to provide access to information. . The wording of the exemption and the interest which the provision is attempting to protect or balance to be taken into consideration. In doing a review, the information commissioner also has to take a look at the content of the document. Such as the nature of the information of the record and why was created in the 1st place, the specificity of the information, the context or confidentiality of the information, whether the issue is current. The age of the record can indicate that's it is no longer injurious. There is also the possibility of partial disclosure of the record, which is known as the severance.




This is a fairly fairl y common sense approach to the analysis. Unfortunately over the years have been to many bureaucrats spending too much time trying to figure out how to get certain kinds of documents covered by exemptions. So you'll see little tricks from time to time like policy discussions going on within a government group ad hoc task forces or other assemblage with the department's lawyer present. And lawyer is the official recordkeeper. This may be true even if it's not an issue that's that's being dealt with does not have a legal component to it. But the solicitor client cl ient privilege exemption is invoked anyway. Cute. What as you might do case like that is to to of askthefor severance of material such a record of in thea names and positions people who attend a meeting with the lawyers. Chances are they've lall eft the meeting with notes there own, even simple handwritten notes, and you can access those under  the act. They may also have have written an e-mail to their boss o orr to colleagues describing the meeting and its outcomes and those e-mail records are covered by the act. Strategic You have to think long-term if you want to be successful using the access act. We have a little joke at the Carleton J-school that we should have all our firstyear undergrads file access to information requests the first term so they’ll have material to write about when they get to the fourth years. You have to be strategic in what you request in deciding whether or not to appeal a decision to refuse information and looking for information in other  places. 26


“All governments lie.” -I.F. Stone !

Writing it down doesn’t make it true

There needs to be a word of warning for journalists. We are in the truth business. We try to verify fa facts. cts. And we therefore have to understand that's words on a piece of paper or in a digital format like an e-mail are really facts only in the sense that they are are evidence that the docum documents ents exist. In other  words, don't believe everything you read even if it is in the government documents. I have seen time and again in Canadian records, rep reports, orts, and all kinds of material coming to light that had very little resemblance to the truth. In my own experience I go back as far as the McDonald commission of inquiry into the RCMP. Mounties produced a heck of a paper trail but they lied to each other and they lied to their bosses. Many of those bosses did not really want candor. So always keep in mind that a record is only a starting point and the information contained in it may very well have to be subjected to additional verification. This is particularly true with documents that are giving an assessment of a situation or of an individual. We've seen in recent years how there were all kinds of documents circulating within the Department of foreign affairs and the RCMP suggesting that Maher Arar was involved in terrorist activities. We know from the O'Connor commission of inquiry that in i n fact those allegations had no substance. Nevertheless there were some journalists who believed that because something was written down on an official document it was probably true. So this is just a word of caution. 27


Work your beat

You have to be strategic. And be prepared that any one particular inquiry may take a very long period of time. time. But if you are well organized and have a lot of  patience you can build a career out of this kind of work. I'm thinking in particular of your own colleague David Puglese, and Jim Bronskill and Dean Beebee at Canadian press. Hell, Jim is still finding stories in the RCMP files of  Tommy Douglas. Work beat. You should already begin with survey of openonline source iin nformation. Thereyour is a lot of information out athere available or information. government reading rooms. So start with those government departments that are of greatest interest to you and see what you can find fi nd on the website. They all are supposed to have on their website a tab or a link described as proactive disclosure. Treasury Board guidelines tell the departments that they should not have to wait for an access request to put certain kinds ki nds of information up on their website.



Proactive disclosures

This includes the hospitality expenses of ministers and senior officials. Contracts worth more than $10,000. And job reclassific reclassifications. ations. Someone over at treasury Board Board a few years ago thought these are areas most often open to abuse and one of the ways to deter abuse was to make this information available proactively proactively on a website. You learn all kinds of interesting things by looking at expense accounts, for example. These are posted quarterly on government websites. At the foreign affairs website can much checkhe outspent Johnfor Baird's travels. The interesting stuffwho may not in fact you be how dinner in Washington but rather he met in Washington. I've actually done this with Baird and discovered the last time he was in Washington he met with the very powerful pro-Israeli lobby organization which has enormous influence with the US government. He also met with a group of Syrian dissidents. The public record doesn't give much detail but armed with even this little bit of information you can begin to ask questions that might might produce stories. And it was there in plain sight sight..



Use your contacts

It helps if you have an inside source who can kind of guide you to information that's already available. I had one official a few years ago who was concerned about improper lobbying to obtain grants for high-tech research and development. He told me of where to look and what to look for and most of the stuff was publicly available in various places, including the lobbyists registration, and what appeared the time to be obscure notes in a report by the auditor general. So as you're working your beat and you've developed a bit of a relationship with people in the department you might tell them that there are ways they can help you without to be in thegiving strict sense a whistleblower themselves themselves. . Theyactually may nothaving the comfortable you copies of documents à la wiki leaks. But they may be willing to sketch out a roadmap for you were you can find what it is you're looking for.



Plant seeds

As I've already noted the use of the access to information act is declined among journalists in recent years. But I think there are good reasons for that. We've been through a series of minority governments, elections, leadership conventions,, confidence votes, coverage of a war in Afghanistan. So national conventions reporters and in particular those working here in Ottawa have had a lot to cover at a time when frankly resources are shrinking and the demands on you in terms of producing for other platforms have been growing. Now, however, might be a good time to start to get strategic and start to use the access act because we know but there's not going to be on election anytime soon. is few the years. time to settle in and the plant some seats for harvesting overSo thenow next



Drill down ! - InfoSource list of institutions

Take a look at what's already available not just in the proactive disclosures section of a departments website but also in the part 2 and part 3 of the departmental budget estimates, and the info source listing of government activities.. Info source is one of the links our workshop webpage at activities



Reading rooms

You might cultivate some sources as well within public service unions. There always seems to be somebody from the union representing border services and the union representing people at corrections Canada who will try to be friendly with reporters. They might tell you where bodies are buried. Or help you understand jargon and euphemisms that you cannot decode. And they also stay in close contact with recently retired people. And those recently retired individuals no longer have to worry about losing their job and they might be extremely helpful. Departments and agencies are also required under the act to have a public reading room. And those reading rooms are the repositories for the department's manuals, policy and procedures and amendments to policies and guidelines and procedures. You might very well discover an interesting back story if you notice that there has been an amendment to a policy. What's behind that amendment? Why is it showing up now? There must be a reason. It may be the reason is very newsworthy. And again were still talking about open source material here. Until about a year or so ago the government had a central registry at treasury Board of all access to information requests that had been dealt with across government. For  reasons I still don't understand the government shut it down. But individual departments are now expected to post links to completed access requests and this is to occur sometime in 2012. Some government departments have already done that and you can find completed requests listed on their website. I presume the others will actually meet the 2012 deadline. The bureaucrats actually like this. They figure that if people know what's already out there they want have to deal time and again with the same request for  the same information.



Move fast to preserve your scoop

But as a competitive journalist you have to understand that once information has been released to you it’s out there. And your competition can have it as well. So don’t sit on hot material for very long. Information is powerful and the more you know about the functions of  government department the more impact you could have with finely targeted access requests.  And this leads to another another way of trying to obtain information information without having to resort to the access information act. If for example youtype, knowperhaps that a department has previously released of a basic an annual or quarterly report on the progress or otherwise of a government program, you are in a strong position to ask for the latest data.  Also keep track of your own stories stories in the stories of others. If you can show that in the past this kind of information was available through official informal channels like the communications office or the ministry spokesperson there could be fewer excuses for withholding updated information. This is why frequent users of the act begin by trying to get the information informally. The more you know beforehand the more likely you are to get what you want and in a relatively timely fashion



Triple A requests

Any and all

So, your request begins with a statement that you want to have access to records under the access to information act. The 30-day clock starts to tick. Use the word records. Records cover everything from emails to marginal notes, to audio recordings, etc. Make it what I call a Triple A request. You want “any and all” records. Try to narrow the time frame for the material you are seeking. This is why it’s good to know when internal committees meet or the deadlines for the completion of reports etc. This saves you time.  Ask other government departments for their ma material terial on the same topics. In many cases the primary department will tell you they need a time extension to consult across agencies. This can be a delaying tactic. Multiple requests to all the involved departments gets you out of the slow lane. Remember, a department’s plea for an extension for consultation purposes must be made with the first 30 days. It must indicate exactly how long they think they will need to consult. If they don’t this can c an be deemed to be a refusal by the information commissioner and a violation of the act.




The penalties are all that great. If a civil servant obstructs the information commissioner he or she can be fined $1000. The only other penalties in the act kick in if someone deliberately falsifies or destroys records to circumvent lawful access. You can get two years y ears and a $10,000 fine for that. But keep in mind, nobody has ever been prosecuted under the act. The access commissioner has taken the view that she cannot lay charges herself, but can refer cases only to the Mounties to investigate or to the Attorney General to decide whether to prosecute.



Don’t be coy

The penalties are all that great. If a civil servant obstructs the information commissioner he or she can be fined $1000. The only other penalties in the act kick in if someone deliberately falsifies or destroys records to circumvent lawful access. You can get two years y ears and a $10,000 fine for that. But keep in mind, nobody has ever been prosecuted under the act. The access commissioner has taken the view that she cannot lay charges herself, but can refer cases only to the Mounties to investigate or to the Attorney General to decide whether to prosecute.


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