So, you want to file an access-to-information request

Wrote about Canada’s Sisyphean ATI regime for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

Congratulations: you are a masochist explorer, fumbling in the dark. You are attempting to describe as specifically as possible the measurements of something you know or think or hope exists, then haggle endlessly over its parameters, without ever having seen it. And Canada—a proud, open, multifarious democracy—has burnished its reputation for information obfuscation.

The last time our national Access to Information Act was revised, Mikhail Gorbachev had just become Soviet leader and New Coke was a thing. While our Prime Minister had big plans for reform in 2006, they haven’t been enacted.

Stonewalling transcends party and political stripes: my colleagues and I have been stymied by all levels of government, across the political spectrum. The federal government won’t tell you which Canadian communities have subpar wastewater treatment systems, or divulge details around companies that have contravened food safety rules. The Ontario government spent years in court fighting Patrick Cain’s attempt to access information on sex offenders. Local governments in Winnipeg and Vancouver refused to give Leslie Young details on water main locations or bridge inspections, for fear that information would prove useful to terrorists.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention jurisdictions that stand out for their almost-human reasonableness.British Columbia and multiple federal departments now let you file access requests online; provincial health ministries have come through for us, data-wise, multiple times. Biggest kudos goes to public bodies that give you public information without having to go through a torturous request process. This is the way truly public information should work 90 per cent of the time.

But that’s the exception. Too much information is behind the ATI wall. The ability to extend the timeframe for a response is virtually unlimited. Information is redacted for reasons as vague as “advice to the minister.” Information commissioners lack teeth.

Even if you emerge from the months-long morass of ATI negotiations with your sanity, sense of purpose and ATI request intact, chances are you’ll be handed an impenetrable sheaf of documents.

From Toronto’s student census to prison inmate death and assault stats, we’ve repeatedly found ourselves entering machine-unreadable numbers into spreadsheets by hand. (We’ve also used this as an inadvertent hazing ritual to disabuse new journalists of any illusions of industry glamour. Some of those victims turned out okay.)

If you, intrepid info-seeker, remain intent on braving an often-discouraging system, here are some tips:

  • Before you go fishing for information, see if someone else has asked for it already. Most federal (and some provincial) access to information offices proactively disclose completed requests. Poke around for ideas or request those records yourself.
  • Ask for statistics in spreadsheet form. Find out the name and structure of the database that holds your information, then file a request for specific fields of that database.
  • If your spreadsheet request is denied, check the applicable Access to Information law to see what it says about requesting records in a particular format.
  • Ask to talk to the “subject matter expert” or someone familiar with your topic of interest. The closer you get to the person familiar with the records you want, the more likely you are to get them.

Remember: The information you are going after is public. You have a right to it. You have a right to complain to the pertinent information commissioner if you think your request is being dealt with poorly.

ATI requests should not be the norm when it comes to accessing public information. They place an unreasonable burden on those who don’t chase stories and data for a living, and there is a real impact on real people when information is kept under wraps. Evidence-based planning goes AWOL; it becomes tougher to keep tabs on the people who represent you, govern you, educate you, maintain your health and roads and safety.

And fumbling in the dark on stuff this important can suck.

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