Much Ado about CAIRS

The decision by Ottawa to scrap its CAIRS system for tracking access to information requests has caused one of those passing flaps on the Hill. But is the move a real threat to openness? I’m not sure, because it doesn’t appear there’s been much openness to threaten lately. 
With federal departments delaying access requests by 200 days and more, the loss of CAIRS seems almost insignificant in comparison. With the entire system in paralysis, knowing what others have requested may satisfy a curiosity, but be of little practical value if all you are going to do is join a long queue.
CAIRS was started almost 20 years ago by the Brian Mulroney Tories as a way to coordinate government response to access requests. Departments would now know if the same request was filed to several departments at once, allowing them to share efforts and ensure the requester got the same response from everyone. It would now be harder to file requests to several departments in the hope each would release something the others hadn’t.
It was, according to accounts at the time, a crackdown on access, not a way to be more open.
But journalists being journalists, they found a way to leverage CAIRS to their advantage.
Someone figured out you could request access to the CAIRS list itself. I was tipped off to this by a fellow journalist at CBC Winnipeg in the mid ’90s, and I remember getting CAIRS every month on a little black floppy disk. I still have those disks in a dusty box somewhere.
You could look up what others had filed, and if it was something interesting, you could file a shadow request and get the documents within days of the original requester. Journalists learned not to sit on access documents for fear another wouldn’t be far behind. I remember one request I filed to the defence department. I used deliberately vague wording so as to throw others off the trail who might see it in CAIRS. But I digress.
It was noted access scholar Alasdair Roberts who first had the idea of putting the CAIRS database online. He started making the same access request the rest of us had been making, and then created a rudimentary search engine.
The search capability has never been very good. You can’t search individual requests, but instead have to search entire months. So if there are three requests having your key word, you get all requests filed for three months, and you have to look through those. It is also difficult to narrow down requests because if you look for two or three key words, the words might well all be in a month’s file, but scattered among several requests, resulting in more not fewer results.
Still, it has been better than nothing, and occasionally you could find something useful in the midst of all the requests by pharmaceutical companies spying on other pharmaceutical companies. When Roberts could no longer run the site, David McKie of CBC took over.
Now, CAIRS has been killed, and the debate will rage for a day or two on the Hill before something more interesting comes along.
But for users of the act, the loss may not be hugely important. Most develop their own requests anyway based on their own needs or other requests they have made. Of the hundreds of requests I have filed over the years, I can’t think of more than a couple that were inspired by CAIRS.
It was a useful tool to see what kinds of requests were being filed, but while its loss is a shame, the more serious problem is the slide into dysfunction of the entire access system that began under the Chretien Liberals and has continued apace under Paul Martin and Stephen Harper.
Harper’s obsessive need to control every shred of information going to the public may or may not have played a part in the death of CAIRS, but far more important is the complete repudiation by this government of its promise to be more open and accountable. That is the real tragedy on the access file, and where we must focus our energies if there is to be any hope of improvement.