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Appearances before Parliamentary Committees
Appearance before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on Priorities for 2009-2010: Strengthening the Access to Information Act to Meet Today’s Imperatives
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I’m delighted to be back among you today to tell you what my Office has been working on and outline our priorities for what I believe is going to be a very busy and eventful year for all of us.
With me today are Suzanne Legault, Assistant Commissioner, Policy, Communications and Operations, and Andrea Neill, Assistant Commissioner, Complaints Resolution and Compliance.
These are exciting times for access to information. There is a bill in the House of Commons and there is a recommendation from this Committee for the government to introduce a bill to modernize and strengthen the Access to Information Act by May 31 of this year. These recent developments tell me that we have reached a pivotal moment in the access to information regime.
I believe the Committee wanted to discuss the issue of resources as well as the measures I have put in place to significantly reduce our complaint backlog. I will discuss these issues in more details. I will also outline other issues that I believe require the Committee’s attention in the coming months.
I have distributed two documents, one that provides some background information about my Office, and another one that provides recommendations on modernizing the Act.
Improved Service Delivery
Last year, one of our priorities was to begin a renewal process to improve the effectiveness of our service delivery. This year, this work continued in full force and will remain a major priority for the Office this year.
In 07-08, we saw the number of complaints we receive increase by 81%. As a result, our backlog has continued to grow. Needless to say, the situation has become critical.
In order to reduce this historical backlog and conduct more timely investigations, we have introduced some new initiatives to strengthen and streamline the complaint-handling process, and better manage our workload. These include the creation of an Intake and Early Resolution Unit as a pilot project and a new separate team that is focused on tackling all of our older cases. Our goal continues to be to eliminate or significantly reduce the current backlog by the end of next year. We also want to prevent the recurrence of a backlog.
I’m happy to report that, already, we are seeing promising improvements in our complaint-handling process and response time. But I will be in a better position to attest to this at the end of the fiscal year as some measures have been put in place only recently.
We will continue to test our new workload management model and make the necessary adjustments to keep us on track.
Mr. Chairman, the last time I was here, I indicated that one of our priorities was to review our approach to Report Cards to ensure that contextual elements that may affect the performance of selected institutions are taken into account.
This year, we have come up with a new process that allowed us to examine the performance of institutions and provide a broader picture of institutional compliance with the Act.
As I’m sure you’re aware, a few days ago, I have tabled my special report on the performance of federal institutions to Parliament. The results provide a grim picture of the federal government’s access to information regime.
The most significant finding indicates that requesters are right to be frustrated with the system. The 30-day period has indeed become the exception rather than the norm and this is just not acceptable.
The prevalence of extensions and consultation requests has significantly slowed down the treatment of requests, to the point that some institutions take an average of 120 days to respond to requesters.
As I have publicly stated, these are systemic problems. It's not just a departmental performance issue. I firmly believe that central agencies such as Treasury Board Secretariat have to exercise leadership and provide federal government departments with the resources they need to fulfil their obligations under the Act.
I fundamentally believe that Canada needs a better compliance model for access to information with adequate performance incentives. As this Committee has stated on numerous occasions, the need to modernize the legislative framework is urgent.
The roundtable discussions held under the auspices of my OIC on the reform of the Access to Information Act last June demonstrated that the modernization of the ATIA is a priority for all.
Mr. Chairman, the document I am providing to this Committee contains a series of recommendations on this matter. It is the result of my reflection of the past year. For instance, I recommend a review of the legislation by Parliament every five years, universal access, a greater coverage of the Act, measures to improve timeliness and strength of the compliance model, and improve public education. Though I support the Open Government Act that was developed by my predecessor, the recommendations outlined in this document should be implemented without further delay.
Mr. Chairman, should this Committee decide to pursue legislative reform, rest assured that I will make it my first priority to assist you in your deliberations.
Another issue I would like to briefly touch on is the inherent weaknesses that are significantly limiting my ability to carry out my mandate and my new responsibilities stemming from the Federal Accountability Act.
I will be going before the Advisory Panel on the Funding and Oversight of Officers of Parliament on March 12 to discuss our financial requirements.
In order to address the resource issue, my Office undertook an A-Base Review to identify what our needs are and how to make efficiency improvements to our operations. The Review revealed a lack of capacity of my Office to support the role of ombudsman and Officer of Parliament.
Basically, we need to obtain additional funding in order for my Office to establish realistic resource levels and service standards based on the size and complexity of its program.
We need these resources so we can put a greater focus on accountability, effective governance, and oversight, and improve service delivery.
Otherwise, my ability to deliver on my legislative mandate, as well as the integrity of my Office’s program could be put in jeopardy.
A stronger regime requires more than modernizing the legislative framework and administrative processes. It requires the leadership necessary to effect the cultural change required to lift the fog over access to information and create a real climate of openness.
Your leadership is also required to see that legislative reform becomes a reality. You have a unique opportunity to help bring about measures to modernize the access to information regime and bring it into the 21st century.
As I said earlier, I think this is going to be an exciting year for access to information. As you can see, a lot of work has been done and there is a lot yet to be accomplished. But with the appropriate resources and leadership, I’m confident that we can meet these challenges.
Strengthening the Access to Information Act To Meet Today's Imperatives