In December 2006, as I prepared for my confirmation hearings before Parliament as a candidate for the post of Commissioner, I had a sense of the tasks ahead. Only a few years earlier, I had taken up a daunting challenge as the Interim Privacy Commissioner. At that time, Parliament entrusted me to be an agent of change, to rebuild the trust of Canadians in that Office.
Parliament once again, unanimously, bestowed its trust upon me to use my experience and expertise to be an influential advocate for openness and transparency as Information Commissioner of Canada. As an Officer of Parliament, I took this responsibility very seriously and promptly devised a plan that would set the tone and direction.
My first order of business was to assess the management structure and practices of the Office to identify the gaps that needed to be addressed, the efficiencies that could be extracted from the current activities and the improvements that could be made to advance the overall performance and productivity of the organization.
The preliminary results of this exercise confirmed that there were few quick fixes that would significantly improve the organization’s performance. It was clear that profound institutional changes were required to address the inherent weaknesses which substantially limited our ability to deliver services to our stakeholders and to implement the changes brought about by the coming into force of the Federal Accountability Act.
I do not want to trivialize the importance of the recent changes brought about by the Federal Accountability Act which affected the role and operations of my Office and created a number of additional pressures on our resources. We asked for additional funding to cope with the effects of these changes.
I have launched an exercise to build up the foundations of the organization, by strengthening the investigative process and the support functions. I could not have started this renewal process without the hard work and commitment of seasoned assistant commissioners, knowledgeable staff, and dynamic new recruits.
With this goal in mind, we undertook a comprehensive review of the complaints handling process. Although this review is still ongoing, we have identified interesting avenues to improve our service delivery. We will implement, on a pilot basis, a dedicated intake and early resolution function which will speed up complaints handling while using mediation and persuasion as a means of dispute resolution. The review will also look at service standards and an approach for the triage and prioritization of complaints.
We also made great strides in strengthening the Office’s communications, policy and research capacities. As Information Commissioner, I fiercely protect my independence from government, but at the same time, I will only be effective and influential in that role if a civil and substantive dialogue is sustained with federal institutions. Bolstering these capacities put access to information at the forefront, thereby supporting the Office’s chief goal of fostering a culture of openness.
I begin my second year as Information Commissioner with a great deal of excitement and a clear map of the road ahead. We will undertake an A-base review of the Office's operations to determine whether our current level of funding is adequate given the complexity of the access to information issues facing us today. The results of this exercise will be forwarded to the Advisory Panel on the Funding and Oversight of Officers of Parliament as a basis to obtain permanent funding.
With the assessment of the Office’s stewardship comes the demanding task of effecting change in a constructive manner. Building internal capacity does not happen overnight. The Office will continue to lay the groundwork for further development of the core functions of the Office. This includes putting in place an adequate framework to better communicate with parliamentarians, government institutions and Canadians about our processes, recommendations and decisions, and the Office’s unique perspective and expertise on policy issues. It will also require significant investments to develop and maintain an internal ATIP office, an internal audit function and modern IM/IT systems.
I will make it my priority to get quicker results to Canadians by improving the timeliness of our own response to complaints. An important step to achieve this goal will be to take firm action to address the backlog of investigations that has built up over time. We propose to achieve this by the end of fiscal year 2009-2010.
We will proactively address systemic issues and federal institutions’ overall performance by way of a revised Report Cards process. This new process will differ in terms of timing, scope of review, and reporting to increase the influence of Report Cards on federal institutions and allow for more meaningful review by parliamentarians. We will structure the review to follow the government’s planning cycle and will include consideration of all contextual elements that may affect performance. We will concurrently publish action plans and responses from the selected federal institutions. Our aim is to provide more detailed information and content that goes beyond a simple rating of request delays. This will be done by way of a Special Report to Parliament.
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the legislation, there is an opportunity to ponder about the value and effectiveness of the legislation. Fundamentally, the Act is sound in terms of concept, structure and balance. Under the guidance of the Courts, it has served to ensure a more informed dialogue between political leaders and citizens, improved decision making, and greater accountability by the Canadian government and its institutions. However, to continue to be relevant, the Act will need to adapt to the realities of the 21st century and the complex issues facing government today. I will advocate in favor of modernizing the legislation and will work to advance legislative and administrative reform of the Act.