The new Information Commissioner spots a surge:
"It's my understanding that there's been a substantial increase in the number of requests since 2015," said Molloy.
"One public body that I dealt with last week asked for an extension because amongst other things they said they had more requests this fiscal year than they had in the previous three."
Molloy has been at the helm of office since July 22, and he said the changes and increased number of access to information requests have made the job more demanding for many in the office.
"It's a real struggle right now in terms of volume, keeping up with the number of requests."During the 2014 review of the Access to Information Act designed to undo the unaccountable and undemocratic Bill 29 changes made during the Dunderämmerung in 2012 – changes made to satisfy the intolerance towards access to information shown by Danny Williams – Commissioner Ring, who never met a Williams-era attempt to restrict access that he couldn't enthusiastically endorse, compiled some statistics in his supplemental submission of August 2014. (See p. 21 of this PDF)
Supplementing these statistics with a quick search of the completed requests database (not quite apples:apples, but close enough), and graphing the result, one can’t help but spot less of a “surge”, and more of a return to business as usual.
Between fiscal years 2008-09 and 2012-13, there was a slow but steady increase in the number of ATI requests being made, averaging about 535 per year until 2012-13, when there truly was a mini-“surge” to nearly 700 requests.
That “surge” during that period could well have been in response to Bill 29, which came into effect part way through that fiscal year, as frequent users of the Act tried to cram their pre-Bill 29 requests in “under the wire”: Bill 29 had a transitional clause which provided that requests received before a certain date would be processed under the law as it existed before the Danny-Dunderdale Tories gutted it.
(Many departments and agencies cleverly short-circuited the transitional provision by simply refusing to open mail addressed to their ATI co-ordinator until the day after Bill 29 received Royal Assent.)
Did Bill 29 have the Danny-Dunderdale desired effect of suppressing ATI activity? You betcha. For the first two full fiscal years that Bill 29 was in force, ATI request volumes dropped to nearly half their pre-29 levels.
After the Wells commission reported, the Davis government, tail between its legs from having been beaten up on the issue for three years, passed the new Act recommended in that report. A few months into fiscal year 2015-16, the new, de-Bill-29’d version of the Act received Royal Assent.
Lo and behold, request volumes returned to their pre-29 levels.
So far this fiscal year, 343 ATI requests have been completed. Projecting forward, and assuming that the pace of request-completion stays constant throughout the year, that works out to 800-and-some requests completed for the year, which would be something of a surge compared to Bill 29 levels, and even, to a lesser degree, compared to pre-29 levels.*
But, apart from a hypothetical surge during the balance of the fiscal year, the statistics do not support the Commissioner’s concerns. On the contrary, they show that the Bill 29 “reforms”, meant as they were to suppress the public’s access to government records, worked, and worked well. To the extent that there has been a surge in request volume since the 2015 unravelling of Bill 29, that may just as easily be accounted for by the fact that, in the post-Bill-29 era, the public is simply more aware of their right to access public records, and, thanks to the elimination of application fees and the praiseworthy creation of an online filing system, more able to exercise that right.
That, in a deliciously perverse way, might be the best legacy of the process, kick-started by Danny Williams in 2009 and dutifully completed by his successors, that was intended to gut that access and deny such accountability in the first place.
* The projected figure for the rest of this fiscal year is "ghosted" in the graph above.