MAIN ESTIMATES 2012-2013: VOTES 40 AND 45 UNDER JUSTICE, 15 AND 20 UNDER PARLIAMENT AND 45 UNDER TREASURY BOARD

REMARKS BY THE INFORMATION COMMISSIONER OF CANADA

STANDING COMMITTEE ON ACCESS TO INFORMATION, PRIVACY AND ETHICS

TUESDAY, MARCH 27, 2012

CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY

Thank you, Madam Chair, for inviting me to speak about the Main Estimates of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada. I am accompanied today by Layla Michaud, my Interim Director General of Corporate Services. Your invitation provides me with a timely opportunity to talk to you about some of our key achievements, challenges and priorities as I begin the third year of my mandate in June.

As detailed in the documents before you, the salary and operating budget for my office in 2012-2013 is $10,348,813 (excluding employee benefit plans).  I have 106 full-time equivalents. Close to 75 percent of my budget is allocated to salaries. Of the remaining 25 percent for Operating and Maintenance costs, a third relates to fixed costs.

Madam Chair, I can assure you that since I became Commissioner, I have worked to do better with less across all our activities.

On the program side, we started three years ago to implement a new way of doing business. We have been guided on this path by the clear direction and focus from the Strategic Plan I adopted at the onset of my mandate. I am encouraged with the results thus far:

  • We made a substantial dent in the inventory of complaints that had built up over the years. We reduced it from 2,500 at the end of 2008-2009 to 1,800 by 2011-2012. 
  • From 1,600 cases, we brought the number of pre-2008 complaints down to 61.
  • There has been a substantial reduction of administrative complaints in our year-end inventory.
  • Six months ago, we started implementing a new strategy for more complex investigations dealing with highly sensitive national security issues. As a result, we expect to close approximately 100 cases. This represents a 33 percent increase over last year.
  • This past year, I have strengthened our legal capacity to assist with formal investigations and litigation. This has also reduced outsourcing costs for legal expertise and professional services.

These are outcomes that we expected and we worked hard to achieve them. They confirm that our business model is sound and that we are heading in the right direction.

Our internal services have been key to facilitating these operational successes. The guidance and assurance provided by our internal audit function, as well as the development of a new case management system have been instrumental in improving our overall performance.

However, more work needs to be done. In completing the tasks at hand, we face significant risks and challenges.

We must refine our strategies to deal with a higher percentage of more complex, refusal complaints. These have steadily increased from 73 percent of the inventory at the end of 2008-2009 to 88 percent currently. Approximately 55 percent (891) can be characterized as follows: they deal with national security issues (385); they involve voluminous and highly technical Canada Revenue Agency files (253); or they result from the Federal Accountability Act (FedAA) extending coverage to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (253, including 135 cases pertaining to section 68.1) 

The higher percentage of refusal complaints increases the likelihood of time-consuming and formal processes.  They also increase the risk of costly litigation.

Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) statistics for 2010-2011 indicate an increase of 18 percent in the number of access requests received by institutions. Historically, 5-6 percent of requests generate complaints to my office. If this trend materializes, we could be faced with an influx of 2,000 to 2,500 new complaints this coming fiscal year. Moreover, several of the top 10 institutions to receive access requests are also among the top 10 institutions generating complaints. Hence, a potential risk in terms of increased workload.

This risk is compounded by the fact that institutions, in times of restraint, tend to cut in their internal services, which include Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) programs. The risks from such cuts could include failure to meet legal requirements, declining performance and an increase in complaints to my office. This is worrisome to the extent that it could adversely affect Canadians’ fundamental right of access.

Human resources also present another significant element of risk. As a small organization, my office is disproportionately impacted by workforce characteristics. For example, according to our statistics, 31 percent of our investigative workforce will reach pension eligibility within the next three years. 

We also face uncertainty due to the fact that we have to relocate our offices in 2013. Preliminary estimates show that the cost could be as high as $3M. We have yet to secure a source of funding. Relocating also entails other risks in terms of sustained productivity and human resources retention.

Given these risks and challenges, here are some of my main priorities for 2012-2013. First, in terms of governance, there are two key positions that I must stabilize within my office. A selection process is already under way to appoint the Assistant Commissioner, who will be responsible for all investigations and complaints resolution. I must also staff on a permanent basis the position of Director General of Corporate Services.

On the program side, I will continue to streamline our operations with a view to increasing the effectiveness and timeliness of our investigations. Regarding administrative complaints, my goal is to move closer to our target of 85 percent of cases completed within 90 days. The quick resolution of administrative complaints allows us to work more intensively on quickly resolving new refusal cases.

Regarding refusal complaints, my goal is to complete priority cases within six months. We will continue with our strategy for national security cases building on the successes so far. In the spirit of results-based management, I will establish processes and service standards for all types of investigations.

With respect to internal services, implementation of talent management is a key priority. Our talent management program will help us develop, attract and retain talent, thereby mitigating some of our risks. It will also contribute to our strategic objective of creating and maintaining a workplace of choice.

We will continue to streamline internal services to minimize risks and improve service delivery. For example, we are currently exploring different shared services opportunities with other institutions, including Agents of Parliament. As a start, we have undertaken discussions to procure compensation services and staffing monitoring from the Shared Services Unit of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
In closing, I thank you for your continued interest and support. I also wish to acknowledge the unabated commitment and dedication of my staff in this process of continuous improvement as we strive to deliver exemplary service to Canadians.

Thank you, Madam Chair. I will be pleased to answer your questions.