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2008 Conference for Privacy Investigators
Speaking Notes for Panel on Intake and Early Resolution
Andrea Neill, Assistant Information Commissioner of Canada
February 13, 2008
Gail thought it would be a good idea if I went first since my office is just now in the throws of gearing up to start an intake and early resolution unit.
In the spirit of true confessions, I thought I would share with you what has motivated and influenced our office to emulate what other Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) offices are doing so successfully in the face of similar caseload issues, and prompting me to say "count me in".
When Robert Marleau became Information Commissioner a year ago, the OIC had been in a serious backlog situation for some time. This was no secret – our annual reports identified the problem. The Commissioner stated publicly that the situation was unacceptable and he made a commitment to improve the OIC’s overall performance and productivity to improve service delivery to Canadians, federal institutions and Parliament. His objective is to eliminate the backlog by the end of FY2009-10.
So what’s the problem?
While we are able to resolve almost all complaints without recourse to the courts, they have not been resolved in a timely way. Average turnaround time is one year. We have about 80 refusal cases that are between 2 to 5 years old and which are our priority to resolve.
We do have formal service standards in place but they are limited, rigid and unrealistic. They are speed standards that do not take into account such factors as fairness and due diligence. Our standards are: 30 days for administrative type complaints like fees and time extensions, and 120 days for denial of access complaints. Cases go into backlog status when they are not completed within our service standards.
Let me give you some fast facts. Last year, we carried over half of our inventory into this fiscal year (1030 complaints). And the number of new complaints received this year has doubled since last year so that we have an inventory of over 2000 assigned and unassigned complaints, and 85% are in backlog status according to our service standards. Another interesting fact: 60% of our business is taken up by 10 frequent users.
We’re not sure of the reasons for the increased number of complaints. It may be a renewed interest in the Act as a result of the high-profile issues such as Afghanistan, the Gomery Commission, the FedAA and the fact that the community of institutions covered by the ATIA increased 37% this year (70 new institutions for a total of 250 institutions).
So, given our current situation, you can guess what my Commissioner identified as my number 1 priority when I arrived 8 months ago...
Attempts have been made in the past to reduce the backlog: new Chief positions were created to supervise teams of investigators; priority was placed on backlog files and a few investigators dedicated full time to the oldest cases.
But the problem was too deep and we kept digging ourselves further and further into a hole that we couldn’t seem to get out of.
And that’s because there are inherent weaknesses with our complaints handling process that significantly limit our ability to deliver effective and timely services to our stakeholders, address the backlog problem and implement the changes brought about by the increased number of institutions now covered by the ATIA.
So we decided that we had to do something to dig ourselves out and not fall back in again. We saw a need to strengthen and streamline our processes. More importantly, we saw an opportunity to take a good hard look at the way we have traditionally done business to see if we could adopt other, better and more flexible approaches to resolving complaints that would complement and/or replace our traditional rigid and formal investigation approach.
We want to change or complement our current approach with two goals in mind:
- to resolve complaints at the earliest opportunity and make decisions in a fair and faster way; and
- increase efficiency by which complaints are processed, thereby both decreasing the inventory of complaints and the average case processing time, while maintaining the quality and thoroughness of investigations.
Our Act is silent as to when and how we decide to investigate a complaint. It does not expressly provide for fast-tracking or mediation or other complaint resolution mechanism. It only says that we shall receive and we shall investigate complaints. So what prevents us from doing mediation where that is seen as the best approach? After all, our Act says that we are masters of our own procedures, so we have flexibility to use a method that is appropriate to the particular circumstances.
So where did we start?
First, we talked amongst ourselves. I was so pleased to see that our investigators have become engaged in the issue. They have lived the problem, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the caseload, and they want to be part of the solution. They are coming up with all sorts of good ideas in working groups and other discussions.
Second, we developed an 11 point backlog strategy. Some of the ones we started to work on immediately are:
- Preliminary restructuring of my branch to reduce bottlenecks in the management review and approval of files: 2 Directors each with two teams of Chiefs and investigators;
- Delegating some of the approvals and sign-offs – more to come.
- Priority on oldest backlog files - identified a Chief as the champion/coordinator
- Started reviewing our complaints handling process - ad hoc working group of investigators
- Review our service standards
- Consider dedicated intake/early resolution function
Third, we identified early on that a dedicated intake/early resolution unit could be part of our answer. Mind you, we already had an intake function – his name is Eric – but we wanted to see how other Information and Privacy Commissioners (IPC) offices did it. So I headed west in October and visited the Manitoba Ombudsman, and the Alberta and British Columbia IPCs to look at their models for intake and early resolution. I was so appreciative of the time that staff spent with me and truly impressed with what I saw in the different models that are tried and true. I was also struck by the pride and enthusiasm in these offices having come up with solutions and approaches to better serve their stakeholders.
What we see as the benefits of a dedicated intake/early resolution unit are:
- enhanced client service focus – provides a service window to the organization and facilitates centralized management of all incoming complaints and inquiries. Also provides more regular point of contact between the OIC and institutions.
- more productive use of investigative staff
- improved staff morale – less overwhelmed as tasks are specialized, roles and expectations are understood
- improved response time for more straightforward complaints.
Fourth, we got some outside help to examine our complaints handling process and identify opportunities for streamlining and improvement, assess the benefits of an intake and early resolution function and assess the appropriateness of our service standards. The consultants did focus group sessions within our office, the ATIP community, interviewed TBS, considered the Manitoba, Alberta and BC intake models, and interviewed staff in the Ontario IPC and federal Privacy Commissioner’s Office.
- Establish a dedicated intake/early resolution unit with triage and prioritization of complaints.
- Abandon our service standards and develop internal performance targets for communicating expected timelines to complainants depending on the nature and complexity of the complaint.
- Redefine backlog as complaints which have been assessed by the Intake/Early Resolution Unit as legitimate complaints but which have not yet been assigned to an investigator.
- Implement a portfolio approach.
- Develop an action plan to guide implementation over time.
We will establish a.s.a.p. an Intake and Early Resolution Unit on a pilot basis. Julie Tremblay, one of my two Directors, will be leading this initiative.
One very interesting aspect of triage and prioritization that we are working on through an internal task group is developing objective criteria for triage and prioritization of complaints. We’re looking at such things as urgency (deadline, legal requirement), impact (public health or safety, loss of rights, parliamentary interest or wider public interest), nature of complaint (probability of resolution) and the category of complainant (media, parliament, legal, public).
We have to develop policies and processes for those complaints that would be appropriate for early resolution, such as time extensions and fees.
We also have to look at internal performance targets for processing time that are qualitative and quantitative.
We have a lot of work to do but we’re at the point now where, taking a line from Ontario Commissioner Ann Cavoukian and Nike, we need to "just do it".
I’m very much looking forward to hearing Nancy, Cathy and Lucy’s presentations as I hope to take away some good ideas for our office.