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Speaking notes for Suzanne Legault Information Commissioner of Canada Presentation to Senators September 27, 2011
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In 1980, when the Honourable Francis Fox introduced the access to information legislation, he stated that: "…access to information will constitute a significant development for our political institutions. It will create opportunities for a more informed dialogue between public leaders and citizens. It will improve the nature of government decision-making by allowing a greater input from the private sector. Finally, it will impose on Ministers and officials a greater degree of accountability and of responsibility for their actions and decisions." Indeed, timely access to public sector information drives democracy and citizen engagement.
Thirty years later, in an era of highly developed and ever-evolving information and communication technologies, I would add that timely and proactive disclosure of public sector information is now also key to competitiveness and socio-economic growth.
That being said, it is important to remember that not all government information should be disclosed. As the Supreme Court of Canada stated last year: "[a]ccess to information in the hands of public institutions can increase transparency in government, contribute to an informed public, and enhance an open and democratic society. Some information in the hands of those institutions is, however, entitled to protection in order to prevent the impairment of those very principles and promote good governance."
It is a very delicate balancing act. As Information Commissioner of Canada, one of my responsibilities is to ensure that this right balance is struck.
The core of my mandate is to investigate complaints under the Access to Information Act. I am proud to report that we completed more than 2,000 cases for a second consecutive year.
Overall, we can count on institutions' collaboration in resolving issues and implementing recommendations. To deal with persisting issues of non-compliance, I issue reports of findings with formal recommendations to heads of institutions.
I bring forward or intervene in legal proceedings when important principles of access legislation must be defended or clarified. This is the case with proceedings involving the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Canada Post Corporation.
To maximize compliance with the Act, we must address the root causes of widespread or recurrent issues that adversely impact the timeliness and quantity of information disclosed. I take a systemic approach to assessing and investigating institutions' compliance. My goal is to provide institutions, central agencies and Parliament a thorough, fact-based diagnostic with specific and tailored solutions, to guide efforts for improvements.
Senator Segal had some words of wisdom in describing government's role in matters of access to information. He stated: "Like everything else in life, exigencies change and requirements evolve. Government should, in the areas of accountability, always try to be ahead of the curve." That is not always easy of course but recently the government has made some significant strides in my view.
It made a commitment, in the Speech from the Throne to "ensure that citizens, the private sector and other partners have improved access to the workings of government through open data, open information and open dialogue."
Last week, Canada joined the multinational Open Government Partnership. These government initiatives are key to embedding a culture of openness in federal institutions.
However, an open government initiative and a commitment to transparency must include a willingness to improve the efficiency of our access to information regime. In this area, much work remains to be done.
Indeed, there has been a steady decline over the past ten years in the timeliness and disclosure of information by federal institutions. Slightly more than half of all access requests are being completed within the statutory 30-day limit. Less than one fifth of all requests currently result in all information being released.
Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Access to Information Act. I submit that theway forward must include the review and modernization of the Act to bring our regime up to par with the most progressive models. In preparation for this event, I have started an in-depth review and international benchmarking of our legislation to be in a position to advise Parliament of necessary amendments to the Act.
To instruct some of our work, I will be hosting the International Conference of Information Commissioners in collaboration with the Canadian Bar Association from October 3 to 5.