Saturday, May 03, 2008


Plenty of bloggers have discussed the Cons' decision to kill CAIRS, a program which lists the wording of all access-to-information requests made to the federal government. But I haven't yet seen any detailed discussion of how eliminating the program figures to actually change the public's ability to access government information - and it's worth noting that the effect might be slightly different than it seems at first glance.

In particular, the elimination of CAIRS won't do anything to change the federal government's obligation to provide the same information when it's requested. Assuming the Cons won't somehow try to declare that the contents of access requests are now exempt from disclosure in some way (and that may well not be a safe assumption), it'll still be open to the website currently maintaining a public CAIRS database to continue to do the same.

What does figure to change, though, is the difficulty in gathering the same information. In particular, there won't be a central source from which a government-wide list of requests can be obtained. Instead, it'll be necessary to either contact each department for its list of requests then compile that information to make it available, or request government-wide records from a single source who would then be required to contact other government sources for the full information.

Assuming that researchers have found CAIRS to be a valuable tool, I'd expect somebody to keep requesting the information. But what happens once the requests are made?

Remember that a number of federal departments are already under fire for being unable to respond to access to information requests in a timely manner. Now, the employees responsible for information requests will face an extra burden in trying to manage requests based on the information previously recorded in CAIRS - and of course with no hint that the Cons will make up for that extra burden with any added resources.

At best, it would seem likely that federal departments could plan to collect the same information manually in order to have it available once it's requested. But from this angle, it looks like the height of inefficiency to dismantle a centralized and automated system in favour of requiring departments to manually collect the same information based on the virtual certainty that it'll be requested.

And if any department doesn't think ahead far enough to collect the information in advance (or otherwise decides it would rather drag out the process than provide the information), the result will be a delay in making the information available to the public.

As a result, and again assuming that the Cons won't try to break from the past by withholding the wording of access requests, the CAIRS decision seems to fall more in the category of throwing a monkey wrench into the works of the federal government, rather than that of a radical move toward added secrecy. But either way, it looks to be a symptom of Con views which are antithetical to effective government.

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