Who CAIRS about Access to Information? (hint: Not Steven Harper)

The Canadian policy wonk blogosphere has been abuzz with the breaking of the news last week that the Tories (capital-c Conservatives for the non-Canuck readers out there) sent out a notice to civil servants advising them reporting access to information requests to the centralised database, CAIRS, was no longer a requirement.

Let’s talk about what’s going on here.

CAIRS and public access to information

Per the CBC:

Originally created in 1989, it was used as an internal tool to keep track of requests and co-ordinate the government’s response between agencies to potentially sensitive information released.

Now, users mine the database to do statistical studies, fine tune phrasing on new requests and discover obscure documents — often using the information against the government.

ver the years the database has become semi-public thanks to the work of a couple of dedicated individuals who basically recreate a public access version of the database by requesting the records of requests. Yes, it is more than a little bit convoluted that a mirror CAIRS database has had to be assembled one Access to Information request at a time, when, according to the Toronto Star

Public Works, which has operated the database, spent $166,000 improving it in 2001. As recently as 2003 federal officials had been working on a publicly accessible, online version.

In an attempt to get a better idea of the relationship between CAIRS and public access to access to information requests (that looks very strange written out…I suppose that’s a testament to how bizarre keeping access to information requests secret really is), I poked around the website of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada.

In the 2002-2003 Annual Report, the OIC says:

Of continued interest…is the Coordination of Access to Information Requests System (CAIRS). The system was created in 1989 and was modernized in 2000 to meet Y2K requirements. Its basic functionality remained relatively unchanged, despite earlier considerations to open the site to the public. The Board is working towards removing the remaining impediments to on-line access…

The following report, 2003-2004 considers the question “Does the government have the right to refuse on-line access to CAIR?” and discusses the tensions between the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) and the public interest and right to know. This section of the report concludes

Lessons Learned

When government institutions find themselves creating records from a database in response to an access request, they should ask whether or not on-line or real-time access to the database would be desirable and feasible. There is no reason, in law or policy, for forcing individuals to make repeated access requests for access to information which is an electronic database to which public, on-line access can readily be given. (emphasis mine)

In the most recent annual report posted, 2006-2007, there is a bunch of rhetoric about how

(T)he right of access has become more and more entrenched in the operations of government. There is more transparency and, hence, accountability in government. No, it is not always easy for Canadians to stomach what they see through the windows into government opened by the access law, nor for public officials to govern in a fishbowl. Yet excessive secrecy would be even harder to digest; our democracy is all the more vibrant for the legally enforceable right we Canadians have to go behind the “stories” governments choose to tell us, to obtain source documents, and to explore the stories which all governments store in dark corners.

…but not one mention of CAIRS in the whole report, despite the fact that “extensive” consultations have supposedly been going on. I guess they weren’t so extensive as to already be on the radar a year ago?

Why was the requirement to update CAIRS done away with?

According to the initial CBC article

A Treasury Board official confirmed to the Canadian Press on Friday that the system is being killed because “extensive” consultations showed it wasn’t valued by government departments.

Instead, “valuable resources currently being used to maintain CAIRS would be better used in the collection and analysis of improved statistical reporting,” said Robert Makichuk.

Looking into what exactly these valuable resources currently being used to maintain CAIRS might be, more specifically, I found that in the interdepartmental Access to Information Review Task Force’s report – which was issued in 2002 – the costs of administering the entire Access to Information Act were noted to have been

around $30 million annually, or less than $1 per Canadian per year. This is a modest cost, in light of the significant public policy objectives pursued by the Act: accountability and transparency of government, ethical and careful behaviour on the part of public officials, participation of Canadians in the development of public policy, and a better informed and more competitive society. (emphasis in original)

So, either the cost of administering the database has somehow skyrocketed since 2002, despite no notable upgrades since Y2K nor going ahead with the plan to make CAIRS publicly searchable on the Internet, or $1 per Canadian per year is suddenly too much money to spend on access to information?

Yes, Harper’s Tories have finished off the CAIRS database – at least for the time being –

probably hoping to avoid brouhaha by doing so quietly and with no advance notice. All part of a day’s work for an administration that is hard at work opening up access to information “more than ever before” and rewriting history. And hopefully this will backfire on them due to the growing political outcry, causing CAIRS to be reinstated.

But one thing I want to know is why was an independent journalist (and prior to that an independent academic) maintaining the only public access to this database to begin with, when in 2002-2003-2004 it was clearly being reasoned by the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada that online access was easy, inexpensive, and ethically compelling?

While the lack of mention of CAIRS in recent annual reports casts doubt on the actual extensiveness of the consultations (the consultations, regardless of extent within the government, did not seek public input) that led to the CAIRS shutdown, the apparent lack of movement toward greater public access over several years, in the face of rhetoric indicating that would be the correct direction, makes me wonder. Was this just the opportune moment to shut down a service that some never liked to begin with? What role did the Tory administration really play in this shutdown – could their general killing of government services to the public merely have provided an opportunity, or was there really a more nefarious anti-transparency agenda?

Finally, I have to admit I laughed a bit at the notion that the accountability database should be shut down because those being held accountable didn’t value the service. Didn’t you laugh at that? That’s like saying that parking tickets should be abolished because people who park illegally don’t value paying the fines.



1 Comment

Filed under government, government information, Intellectual freedom

One response to “Who CAIRS about Access to Information? (hint: Not Steven Harper)

  1. The obvious pun led both of us to similar titles. I’m surprised I haven’t seen it elsewhere as well.

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