Monday, May 15, 2006

PEI "at a crossroads" on privacy and access

It was reported last week that the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Prince Edward Island has temporarily taken leave due to stress. (See: CBC Prince Edward Island - Privacy commissioner takes sick leave and CBC Prince Edward Island - Minister surprised by overwork complaint) I didn't blog about it, principally because her health is her own business and shouldn't be the topic of public discussion. However, it has caused some discussion of real public interest on the role of the Information and Privacy Commissioner in that province and, particularly, the resources that should be devoted to the function.

Currently, the province's Commissioner is a part-time position, at 22.5 hours a week and with part-time administrative support. Her annual report, filed at the beginning of the month, outlines the backlog that her office is having to deal with.

Now today's Guardian has an editorial on the situation:

The Guardian: Province at crossroads on information

Either put more resources into the info commissioner’s office or tell the public to expect longer waits for information.

By The Guardian

Based on the recent report of P.E.I.’s information and privacy commissioner, government has two choices. It can lighten the demand on the office so that the current staff can handle it, or it can beef up resources so it can meet the targets set out in legislation.

If government has a genuine appreciation of the role of this newly created office, it should do the latter.

In her report to the legislature presented last week by Speaker Greg Deighan, Rebecca Wellner, part-time information and privacy commissioner, urged government to make the position of commissioner and her assistant full-time and increase their financial resources.

Why? The report identifies a growing backlog of incomplete files. In spite of the law requiring the office to process cases within 90 days of the date of filing, only three of 27 files that resulted in orders from the commissioner from 2003-2004 were dealt within the allotted time.

It appears the office is swamped with work and lacks the resources it needs to respond. If that’s the case, it’s unfair to the staff trying to get the job done, unfair to the parties who’ve filed requests with the office expecting they’ll get timely results, and it’s unfair to taxpayers who are paying for the service.

P.E.I. was one of the few provinces without access to information legislation until a few years ago when government finally adopted it. Suffice to say, it’s been a work in progress. Some of those who’ve used it say it’s costly and cumbersome, although these are seen as common problems that must simply be worked out.

In an era where voters are demanding more openness and accountability from their governments, this legislation is seen as a necessary tool to access public documents and information. It’s obvious that when the P.E.I. government created the office of the information and privacy commissioner, it attempted to ensure reasonable accessibility. Why else would it have put into law the requirement that cases be processed within 90 days?

However, the current staffing of the office doesn’t appear to be adequate to allow for this. Government must either revise the legislation and provide a longer period for case completion or address the staff inadequacies.

If government doesn’t want to render the office ineffective — and we assume that to be the case — it should follow Ms. Wellner’s recommendation and make the position of commissioner and her assistant full time. It’s the price we have to pay to ensure that our information and privacy legislation remains active and effective for Islanders.

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