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Speaking notes for Suzanne Legault
Information Commissioner of Canada
Special report to Parliament
2009-2010 report cards
March 10, 2011
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Welcome and thank you for being here for this briefing on the results of our most recent report cards.
This year's exercise is part of the Three-Year Plan for Report Cards studying delays in responding to access requests - not only to find the root causes of the delay within federal institutions but also to recommend solutions to reverse the problem. In the first year, my Office examined a large sample of institutions which accounted for 88 percent of all the requests government institutions received in 2008-2009. This year we studied some of the institutions that became subject to the Access to Information Act in 2007 under the Federal Accountability Act - or FedAA as we know it.
The results are found in the Special Report tabled in Parliament this morning entitled "Open Outlook, Open Access". The Special Report also includes a follow-up on the institutions that did not fare well last year and my views on the amendments introduced in the Act as a result of the FedAA.
This year's report card exercise included eight new institutions. Five of them are Crown corporations, which operate in a largely private sector environment with varying combinations of commercial and public policy objectives. The other three are agents of Parliament. Agents of Parliament are independent statutory officers who serve to scrutinize the activities of government. All new institutions that received five or more complaints since they became subject to the Act were selected. As a result, my office was selected for review. My office's report card was prepared by the Information Commissioner Ad Hoc.
I am delighted to report some excellent results for the majority of the institutions in this year's cohort. Six of the eight institutions performed better than average.
You might conclude that these smaller institutions are at a distinct advantage because of their size and the volume of requests they receive. What we have observed first and foremost is that these institutions have the right attitude towards transparency. They have also put the necessary efforts to establish the right tools, allocate sufficient resources and implement sound approaches.
I congratulate Atomic Energy of Canada Limited; the National Arts Centre; the Office of the Auditor General; the Office of the Privacy Commissioner; and VIA Rail for achieving these strong compliance rates with the Access to Information Act. Since becoming subject to the Act, my office has put a lot of efforts to achieving high standards of compliance and to lead by example. I'm proud that my office is also part of this group.
However, the picture is not perfect…
While no new systemic issues were observed in this year's special report, we did see some of the worst results in the 12 years that we have been doing the report cards. We issued a red alert this year to the Canada Post Corporation, which means that its performance was so far off the chart that we were unable to ascribe a rating.
We observed an astonishing 190-day average completion time for the 84 requests they completed in 2009-2010 and three out of four requests were delayed much beyond their deadlines. These numbers are unacceptable. However, Canada Post agreed with all five recommendations. I also spoke with the new President who assured me of his commitment to improving Canada Post's compliance with the Act.
We also issued a failing grade this year to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. An initial flood of requests in the first few months that it became subject to the Act continues to reverberate at the CBC. This is illustrated by a large backlog at the beginning of the year and an average completion time of 158 days. Yet, we have seen promising signs of improvements in terms of timeliness towards the end of the 2009-2010 reporting year which bode well for the future.
Although it is early in my seven-year term to measure progress towards an improved access to information regime, I can point to early improvements made by the 13 institutions that particularly struggled last year. Overwhelmingly, my recommendations have been accepted and the majority of these institutions report being on the road to improved performance. Highlights included in this report denote increases in resources, improvements in response times and backlog reduction. A more detailed assessment of their performance will be done next year.
In preparing this year's report cards, I took the opportunity to take stock of the legislative scheme that was introduced by the FedAA in relation to access to information. Before the adoption of the FedAA, one of my predecessors, former Commissioner Reid, indicated in a special report to Parliament his serious concerns about the legislative proposals. He feared that the amendments would do "little to increase public access to information held by newly added entities" and would "not strengthen the accountability of government through transparency - it [would] weaken it". After more than three years of experience with the changes introduced by the FedAA, it is my view that the FedAA resulted, at best, in marginal advancements for transparency.
The legislative scheme increased the number of institutions covered by the Act by 70, which represents about 2% of all requests received in 2009-2010. At the same time, however, it introduced new exemptions and exclusions that prevent the Act from being applied generally.
As a law of general application, the Act must rest on strong foundations to be effective - including a broad coverage, narrow limitations to disclosure, and a strong compliance model to ensure timely, accurate and complete responses to access requests. In essence, the FedAA introduced a piecemeal approach to amending the Access to Information Act rather than following guiding principles that respect its basic tenets.
We are now left with a law that contains different regimes applying to similar types of information, such as investigative records, and with an increased level of complexity that causes uncertainty in the legal interpretation of these new limitations. Consequently, about 12% of the complaints my office registered in 2009-2010 were against new institutions and have resulted in an increase in litigation.
In closing, one of my goals during my tenure as Information Commissioner is to reverse the decline in timeliness and disclosure. Report cards and systemic investigations are essential tools of change for turning things around. The great work undertaken by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in its twelfth report also ensures that federal institutions are held accountable for their performance in complying with the Act.
This year's report cards confirm that, with the right tools, resources and attitude, compliance with the Act is achievable. It also shows that improvements are possible with the goodwill and efforts of federal institutions. I am adamant, however, that a winning strategy for improved transparency across the federal government must include a review of the amendments brought into law by the FedAA and a more general review of the Act as a whole.
I would be pleased to answer any questions you have.