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Annual report of Canada’s Information Commissioner marks bold new direction

Robert Marleau, Canada’s fourth Information Commissioner, tabled his 2007-2008 annual report in Parliament today. The report highlights the new direction Mr. Marleau has taken in his first year in office to better serve Canadians in the increasingly complex world of access to information.

The past year saw renewed debate and interest from Canadians in their right to information on government activities as well as notable changes in the access to information legislation itself, stemming from the Federal Accountability Act.

“From the way we conduct our investigations to how we communicate to the public, including through our annual report, everything about what we do is moving in a new direction,” said Mr. Marleau. “This report highlights our achievements this year and the groundwork we have done to tackle the challenges ahead.”

Most notably for users of the system, the Commissioner has streamlined the way his office handles complaints to increase the speed and efficiency of the process.

For institutions, the Commissioner has made improvements in the way report cards will be prepared to provide a reliable picture of the degree to which institutions comply with the general intent and spirit of the Act and then communicate that information to the institutions, Parliament and the public.

The Commissioner has also changed the way his office works by restructuring it and by opening its doors to a more cooperative, collaborative and consultative relationship with federal institutions and other stakeholders.

“Early in my mandate as Information Commissioner I realized the need to take a new approach to our work to adapt to the changing environment of access to information that would involve strong policy development, active communications and top-notch client service,” said Mr. Marleau. “I also wish to foster a culture of openness in government, using the full range of influence I have as an ombudsman”.

The changes the Commissioner has introduced this year have laid the foundations for the Office to achieve its goals, promote transparency and openness in government and deliver high standards of service to Canadians.

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Annual Report Backgrounder

The 2007-2008 annual report covers the first full year for Robert Marleau as Canada’s Information Commissioner. This period was marked by considerable interest in the issue of access to government information and in the role of the Commissioner and his office in investigating complaints.

The interest was partially spurred by changes to the Access to Information Act arising from the Federal Accountability Act, which included a significant increase in the number of institutions subject to the Act (70 to bring the total to more than 250). Another contributing factor was public debate about access to government information, sparked in particular by Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. There has also been ongoing, and welcome, scrutiny of the Commissioner’s effectiveness at using his influence as ombudsman to foster a culture of openness in government.

The Commissioner and his office faced numerous challenges in the past year, not the least of which being a significant backlog of complaints waiting to be handled. The number of new complaints received increased by 80 percent from the previous year.

The annual report lays out the actions the Commissioner and his office took in 2007-2008 to lay strong foundations for the coming year to begin to tackle the backlog of complaints, improve the complaints-handing process and generally provide high-quality service to Canadians.

It is notable that the Office of the Information Commissioner itself has become subject to the Access to Information Act. The report outlines the steps that the Commissioner took to respond to this change, such as appointing an ad hoc Information Commissioner to handle complaints against his office.

The Commissioner took the opportunity on numerous occasions to communicate clearly and openly about his work and plans for his office and about access to information issues to a wide audience such as Parliamentarians, Access to Information and Privacy Coordinators and journalists. One example was for Right to Know Week in October 2007. The Commissioner hosted a seminar to discuss the challenges to improving access to government information in Canada. The seminar was open to the public, and involved panel discussions in which the Commissioner participated as well as journalists, access users, and politicians with an interest in promoting transparency in Canada.

Canadians have already begun to see the fruits of the Commissioner’s work in 2007-2008 and can expect to see further results from the changes that have been introduced. For example, in the fall, the Commissioner will report to Parliament on the progress federal institutions have made in responding to access to information requests, based on the results of the improved report card process.

In June, there will be a roundtable, hosted by the Office of the Information Commissioner, to engage leading thinkers, practitioners, decision makers and other interested parties in a forward-looking discussion on the state of the federal access to Information regime 25 years on, aimed at generating creative thinking and ideas around options to modernize the regime.