Harper gov't urged to restore FOI online registry

Information commissioner says the online registry killed two years ago by the federal Conservatives provided a valuable service to Canadians.

Ottawa (12 Nov. 2010) - Suzanne Legault, the federal information commissioner, is asking the Harper government to restore an online registry of access-to-information requests that it killed two years ago.

In a long-awaited investigation report, Legault says Ottawa should regularly post incoming access requests on its websites.

She also says the federal Treasury Board should create a central search tool that would allow the public to sift easily through requests, essentially recreating the registry that was abandoned by the Conservatives.

She has also urged the government - in the interests of greater transparency - to consult those who file requests and the general public on the usefulness of such online tools.

The federal Access to Information Act allows citizens who pay $5 to seek a variety of federal files — from briefing notes and expense reports to correspondence and internal audits.

In 2008, the Harper government scuttled the central registry, telling agencies they no longer needed to update the database, known as the Coordination of Access to Information Requests System (CAIRS). It was established in 1989.

Though not intended for public use, journalists, lawyers, politicians and public-interest groups relied on the database to monitor requests on various topics. It also allowed them to monitor requests filed by others and quickly determine whether an agency may have already disclosed records on a subject of interest.

The Treasury Board said CAIRS was shut down because the resources necessary to maintain it would be better used elsewhere. Critics said the move was evidence of government secrecy and aversion to transparency.

The information commissioner’s office launched a systemic investigation in response to two formal grievances from unknown complainants whose identity the watchdog cannot legally disclose.

In a summary of her findings, Legault says consultations with those who used CAIRS, indicated the registry "provided real value to access requesters and the public in general."

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