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A Dire Diagnosis for Access to Information in Canada
The Background: Context and Process
Twenty-five years ago, Canada was among the first democratic nations to empower its citizens with an Act of Parliament giving them access—with ‘limited and specific exceptions’—to government-held information.
Government institutions thus became directly accountable for their actions and decisions.
Specifically, the Access to Information Act requires that: institutions make every reasonable effort to assist access requesters; respond accurately and completely; and in a timely manner.
The ‘duty to assist’ provision was reinforced in recent years by the introduction of the Federal Accountability Act.
Report cards process
As part of its mandate since 1998, my Office conducts a ‘Report Cards process’ to assess the performance of federal institutions in responding to information requests.
Until now, the process tended to focus on ‘deemed refusals’—i.e. requests not responded to within the first 30-day timeline, or within the time extension provided for by legislation.
This remains a very important criteria, especially in today’s fast-paced digital environment, because as you all know too well: access delayed is access denied. But deemed refusals do not give us the whole picture.
So, for 2007-2008, my Office introduced substantial improvements to the process in order to obtain a broader picture of institutional performance.
This has provided important information on contextual factors—e.g. changes in workload, capacity, process and leadership. It has uncovered a number of good practices. More importantly, the process has shed light on system-wide trends that affect the performance of institutions, yet are not within their immediate control.
The Results for 2007-2008
Today’s report marks the culmination of this process. And the broader picture is also much darker.
Six out of the 10 institutions sampled for the evaluation process performed below average. Reasons vary and include: excessive workload, lack of resources and inefficient processes.
The most significant finding is that the 30-day timeline intended by Parliament is becoming the exception instead of the norm. The institutions reviewed this year process, on average, less than half of their requests in 30 days. Many of you have reported this, even experienced it.
But there is a disturbing trend toward greater use of time extensionsandfor longer periods of time. And this trend is not justified by the proportional increase in the number of information requests.
As I mentioned earlier, our process has identified various systemic issues affecting access to information.
These systemic issues include: widespread deficiencies in information management; the negative impact of the consultation process; chronic gaps in HR capacity and training; and lack of effective executive leadership when it comes to access to information.
For years now and from different quarters, concerns have been raised about the deteriorating state of information management within government. The poor performance shown by institutions is symptomatic of what has become a major information management crisis. A crisis that is only exacerbated with the pace of technological developments.
Access to information has become hostage to this crisis and is about to become its victim.
There is currently no universal and horizontal approach to managing or
accessing information within government. Some institutions don’t even know
exactly what information they are holding.
But in today’s digital environment, outmoded ‘paper’ practices, inconsistencies, overlapping or duplication of information have serious ramifications. Such unsound practices slow down the retrieval process, lead to unsuccessful or repeated searches, and generate huge amounts of pages to review. This in turn translates into unacceptable delays in responding to information requests.
The increasing number of consultations between institutions also tends to create substantial delays. With the growing complexity and interconnectivity of government issues, consultations have become an inescapable business requirement. Yet this reality is not recognized, not measured, and therefore not appropriately resourced.
On the HR front, there is not enough qualified personnel to handle access to information operations and no integrated plan to increase capacity. There is also no mandatory staff training to raise awareness about the Act.
All these gaps are clearly indicative of a lack ofleadership at the highest levels of government.
Without proper leadership and oversight, institutions are forced to devise or implement questionable strategies in order to manage their workload in the absence of adequate resources.
As the organisation responsible for issuing policy compliance directives, the Treasury Board Secretariat must exercise more forceful leadership.
Today’s report contains wide-ranging recommendations to address the various flaws found with the administration of the Act.
To the Treasury Board Secretariat
The strongest and most strategic recommendations call on the Treasury Board Secretariat:
- To properly assess, resource and improve information management practices throughout government institutions.
- With respect to access to information specifically, Treasury Board needs to develop an integrated HR action plan that will address current gaps in resources. Part of the solution requires the professionalization of access personnel, through the establishment of a formal training program and certification standards.
- Treasury Board must also review and improve its criteria under the Management Accountability Framework for measuring the overall performance of institutions in meeting their obligations under the Act.
To individual institutions
In addition, recommendations are made to all institutions surveyed, calling on them to:
- Allocate adequate resources for their access to information units.
- Institutions must review their processing methods for information requests in order to improve efficiency and timeliness.
- They also need to improve their tracking and reporting mechanisms, particularly with respect to time extensions and consultations.
True, we are facing harsh economic times. But when it comes to information management and access, the status quo would be far more costly, and more devastating in the long run, than injecting what is needed to fix the problems now.
Examples of good practices
As I said earlier, the new report cards process has allowed us to identify a few good practices which could well inspire other institutions.
On this issue in particular, I would like to commend the Department of Justice—which incidentally obtained the highest score among all institutions, after receiving a failing grade for deemed refusals in each of the previous three years. Justice Canada has managed to implement a memorandum of understanding with 18 federal institutions to speed up the consultation process. It has also introduced a fast-track process for reviewing certain types of records to avoid unnecessary delays.
Library and Archives Canada—another good performer—focuses on delivering quality of service to access requesters. Its staff helps requesters narrow the scope of their requests and ensures that they receive relevant information.
Follow-up and OIC’s commitments
So what’s next? Where do we go from here?
For its part, my Office will carry out a follow-up with the 10 institutions surveyed as well as Treasury Board to assist with and evaluate progress.
This exercise will be part of the first three-year plan which we will introduce for our performance reviews. These three-year plans will be widely advertised and will specify ahead of time which institutions are targeted for review.
In the meantime, we are also planning to conduct a formal systemic investigation that will focus specifically on the use and impact of time extensions. More details will be provided in due course.
Compliance model and modernization
Fixing the administrative part of the equation is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for effective access to information.
There is another crucial aspect which the report cards process has highlighted once again: the compliance model is weak. We want it to bite, but it has no teeth!
Currently, there are no adequate performance incentives, and no consequences for not complying with legislative requirements.
For example, despite their significant impact on delays, the length of extensions is not constrained by any statutory limitation. Federal institutions are only required to notify the Information Commissioner, and there is no sanction provided for failure to do so.
The system needs greater discipline, but the right signals are missing.
More importantly, the legislation needs to be aligned with today’s standards and reflect today’s digital imperative.
Twenty-five years ago, Canada was a leader in empowering Canadians with the means to check on the performance of their government and play an active role in our democratic way of life.
Canada needs to regain this status if it has any ambitions to assist other nations on their way to democracy.
I will be happy to take your questions now.