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Federal ‘piggyback’ requests skyrocket in 2022-23

The Peace Tower on Parliament Hill is reflected in the windows of the Bank of Canada. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
The Peace Tower on Parliament Hill is reflected in the windows of the Bank of Canada. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Two weeks ago, I looked at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat’s access to information statistics for 2022-23. That post was getting way too long, so I decided to split it into two, which allows me to go deep on one of the things that most stood out to me: A recent, huge increase in piggyback requests – or, as the feds officially call them, “informal” requests.

Piggybacks are re-requests of records previously released under access to information. In theory, these should be easily releasable: The documents have already been vetted and approved, after all. Unlike access requests, which are governed at the federal level by the Access to Information Act, piggybacks have no statutory deadlines, and requesters don’t have the right to file appeals over delays.

The result? Well, take a look:

A full 7 per cent of completed piggybacks, 1,800 files in all, took longer than a year to process. Again, this is for files that have already been vetted and released to someone else.

The volume of piggyback requests has skyrocketed in 2022-23 for reasons that are somewhat unclear to me. It’s jumped from roughly 16,000 in fiscal 2022 to almost 26,000, a 59-per-cent increase. Perhaps people are just generally re-requesting old records more frequently (hopefully by using our piggyback tool, though any impact from that won’t show up until this December’s statistical report). Or perhaps these new piggyback requests are coming from a small handful of sources. Time will tell.

Also of note: I wrote a story back in November, 2022, that asked why the federal government didn’t simply publish completed access request packages online. The documents I obtained suggested officials were worried about violating the Official Languages Act, since access requests often contain records in a single language. The Treasury Board even went so far as to estimate how much it would cost to translate every release package into both official languages. Their guess? Around $2-billion. (This notwithstanding the opinion of a former Official Languages Commissioner and a professor specializing in language rights, both of whom told me the government should be able to find a solution cheaper than the current valuation for the Detroit Tigers, a Major League Baseball team).

The published dataset for 2022-23 helpfully includes a breakdown of translation requests for access requests, which we can use as a proxy for the level of interest in translated piggyback requests. Can you guess how many translation requests were made? Drumroll, please…

If you guessed one (1), consider buying a lottery ticket today. The Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority received the lone translation request for the entire federal government last fiscal year, from English to French. (A doff of the hat to Matt Malone at Thompson Rivers University for putting me onto this.)

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