Annual Reports 2010-2011 and 2011-2012

Remarks by the Information Commissioner of Canada
Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Check against delivery

Good afternoon and thank you for your invitation to appear in relation to your study on my Annual Reports for the years 2010-2011 and 2011-2012. These two years represent the first two years following my official nomination as Information Commissioner, on the heels of having served in the position for an interim year in 2009-2010.

Preparing for this appearance caused me to reflect on the work the OIC team has accomplished under my leadership. It also caused me to review the conditions that existed at the time I took the helm of the office, conditions which have informed and guided my actions since. Let me review these briefly.

First, when I took over as interim Commissioner in 2009, the OIC was literally crippled by an unprecedented inventory of old cases dating as far back as 2002-2003. The number of cases in the inventory at the beginning of that year stood at 2, 514 cases. This is compounded by the fact that the OIC received, in the last four years, an average of 1600 additional cases a year. The average turnaround time for a case was 449 days.

Second, the Federal Accountability Act had recently come into effect bringing under the purview of the Access to Information Act sixty-nine new institutions, most notably a number of Crown corporations along with new exclusions and exemptions, adding a new level of complexity.

Third, there had been a steady decline in two key performance measures in accessing federal government information. In terms of timeliness, only slightly more than half of all access requests made to federal institutions were completed within thirty days. In terms of disclosure, less than one fifth of all requests resulted in all information being disclosed.

Fourth, the Open Government Movement was developing rapidly in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, and

Fifth, the office's corporate governance was in need of a serious makeover.

Given these challenges, I set out a clear direction in 2010-2011 in the OIC Strategic Plan, which has three key results areas: an exemplary service to Canadians, a leading access to information regime, and an exceptional workplace.

The Annual reports of 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, as well as the upcoming 2012-2013 Annual Report, highlight our achievements in addressing these key results areas.

Exemplary Service to Canadians

When I first took on the role of Information Commissioner, I made a commitment to maximize the effectiveness and timeliness of my office to meet the needs and expectations of Canadians. As the annual reports show, we have made great strides towards the achievement of this objective through sustained and ongoing efforts.  Let me give you some of the key numbers.

Our inventory now stands at 1, 796 files - a reduction of 28.5 percent. We have closed about 7300 complaints since April 2009 including some of our oldest and most complex cases that had accumulated at the Office over the years. Our average turnaround time is now 380 days. More importantly, our median turnaround time now stands at 215 days and our median turnaround time once a case is assigned is 86 days.

One of the challenges we now face is the changing composition of our complaints. Our caseload is almost exclusively composed of complex refusal files, a large proportion of which (46% ) deal with issues of national security and international affairs, complaints against the Canada Revenue Agency and complaints against the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

During the period of time under review we dealt with some key investigations, such as the first referral to the Attorney General under section 67.1 and the Special report dealing with interference in the processing of access requests.

We also had some key court decisions such as the Bronskill decision, clarifying cases dealing with national security, the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision confirming the Commissioner's authority to compel the production of documents under the control of the CBC, and the Supreme Court of Canada decision stating that Ministers offices are not part of the government institutions for which they are responsible. These decisions are now being applied through our investigations and our upcoming annual reports will shed light on their implications for requesters' rights.

A leading access to information regime

On the key result area of a leading access to information regime we have been active on several fronts. It is of course not a secret that I am a strong believer in the need for legislative reform but the focus of our activities for the period under review was on the overall performance of the access regime and on Open Government.

During this period I completed the Three Year Plan on Report Cards which specifically looked at timeliness. In the course of this project we reviewed 32 institutions among those that receive the most requests. We made a number of recommendations both at the institutional level and at the Treasury Board Secretariat, as the body responsible for the administration of the Act. Most of these recommendations have been implemented and have achieved positive results. The most noteworthy being the collection of detailed statistics with a view to better diagnosing the problems in the system and the various modifications to Treasury Board policies dealing with delegation of authority and mandatory consultations.

The scrutiny of this committee over the years has also played an important role in prompting institutions on to better compliance with the Act. I have asked institutions in the most recent Report Cards to report their progress in implementing our recommendations in their mandatory annual reporting to Parliament under the Access Act. It is my hope that this committee will review these reports and follow up on them as you see fit, to ensure ongoing scrutiny of the performance of institutions in meeting their access to information obligations under the Act.

We also completed the investigation into the Coordination of Access to Information Requests System called CAIRS where I recommended to the President of the Treasury Board that all federal institutions post the summaries of completed requests on their websites and that a central search feature is enabled to allow the public to search the lists of requests. Since January 2012, all federal institutions have to post this information on their websites. The government is planning to have searchable summaries by next year.

During the two years under review I spent considerable effort on promoting the benefits of the Open Government Movement, in speeches, before this committee in 2010, and through a joint resolution of all information and privacy commissioners in 2010, which called on all government to embrace open government principles for greater transparency and accountability. I was happy to see that the Government adopted an Open Government Platform in the spring of 2011. On behalf of all the information and privacy commissioners of Canada, I also sent a letter to the President of the Treasury Board last year to provide recommendations for the government's action plan for its work as a member of the Open Government Partnership. The key recommendation was to update the Access to Information Act.

In the fall of 2011 I hosted the 7th International Conference of Information Commissioners in collaboration with the Canadian Bar Association. This was the first time that this conference was held in Canada. This event brought together more than 250 participants, including 36 international, provincial and territorial commissioners. The conference culminated in the release of a joint resolution signed by commissioners of 23 countries that call on governments to enshrine the right to information in national laws.

Exceptional Workplace

On the key result area of an exceptional workplace we focused on developing an integrated human resources plan and modernizing the corporate governance of the office with the leading initiative of modernising our IM/IT systems. This five year strategy started in 2009 and is slated to finish in 2013-14. So far we are on time, on target and on budget.

This is but a snapshot of the work conducted at the OIC during that period of time and, as you can see by now, I am very proud of all we have accomplished.

However, as you will see in my upcoming annual report for the year 2012-2013, which will be published in June, much remains to be done. Especially since the modest gains at the system level, which I reported upon in my 2011-2012 Annual Report, appear to have mostly disappeared.

After all, 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the coming into force of the Access to Information Act, a key driver of democracy, transparency and accountability. Lets make sure we have cause to celebrate.

You will find in the package that was distributed a number of documents that provide additional information on the work of my office.

Thank you and I am ready to answer your questions.