OTTAWA -- The federal access-to-information law is "effectively crippled" as a means of promoting accountability, says a new study that tested open records legislation across the country.

The latest annual freedom of information audit by lobby group Newspapers Canada says long delays, staff shortages and blacked-out pages add up to an Access to Information Act "that just doesn't work."

The organization, which represents more than 800 newspapers, sent almost 450 access requests to federal government departments and Crown corporations, ministries, departments and agencies in all provinces and territories and to municipalities and police forces.

The report says the results revealed familiar, entrenched patterns, and some new ones.

In the digital age, it stresses, the willingness to disclose data in formats that can be read by computers is increasingly important and, once again, the audit found many public bodies "resistant to releasing information in these formats."

People who want information from Canada's cities could expect reasonably speedy service, while provinces, on average, took a little longer and the federal government trailed far behind.

Requesters who file an application under the federal Access to Information Act should be prepared for a long wait and to see more information withheld, the report says.

"There is no doubt that the federal access system is critically sick. Departments can take months to answer requests, even though the normal time from start to finish is supposed to be 30 days or fewer."

The "glacial slowness" of the federal system was perhaps best exemplified by the more than two months it took for Environment Canada to release a list of the department's Twitter user names, the report says. That compared to nine provincial and municipal bodies that disclosed the same information in a day or less.

"Indeed the federal government routinely takes longer to process requests than provincial and municipal governments asked for exactly the same information."

One of the worst-performing federal departments, Transport Canada, had not responded to three of five requests more than three months after they were filed. One request sought representations by railways on the introduction of tougher standards for rail tank cars -- a key public safety issue following the disastrous derailment and explosion in Lac-Megantic, Que.

The federal shortcomings identified in the study stem from both the way the law is administered and the wording of the 32-year-old act itself, said audit project leader Fred Vallance-Jones, who teaches in the journalism program at University of King's College in Halifax.

"The guts of it haven't changed since 1983, and the world has changed a great deal."

The Green, Liberal and New Democratic parties have made election campaign promises to modernize the Access to Information Act.

In citing what's possible, the report points to Newfoundland and Labrador, which passed a revamped access law in June, drastically reducing fees and boosting the role of the province's information commissioner in overseeing the system.