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Speaking notes for Suzanne Legault

Information Commissioner of Canada

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI)

September 22, 2011

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Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

I am pleased to appear before you today as the Committee starts its work on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in this 41st Parliament. You will find in the package that was distributed to you a number of documents that provide more information about my mandate, the accomplishments and priorities of my office, as well as a report and action plan related to a recent audit of our investigative processes. My opening remark will be available in both official languages later today.

Clearly, this Committee plays a crucial role in holding the Government to account. You are vested with the responsibility of ensuring that the Canadian government's transparency agenda fulfills Canadians' needs and expectations for timely disclosure of valuable public sector information.

Indeed, timely access to public sector information drives democracy and citizen engagement. In an era of highly developed and ever-evolving information and communication technologies, it is the fluidity of public sector information that is 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: " Access 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. My annual report tabled in June 2011 highlights the activities of my office.

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. We reduced by 8% the average time needed to complete investigations. And we further decreased our inventory at year-end by 11%. This success is due to a combination of efficiency gains, agile case management and collaboration with institutions.

Overall, we can count on institutions' collaboration in resolving issues and implementing recommendations. To deal with persisting issues of non-compliance, I issued seven reports of findings with formal recommendations to heads of institutions. Three of these cases were ultimately resolved and the recommendations implemented. The four remaining cases are now before the courts. 

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.

Last year, we implemented Year 2 of our three-year plan for report cards and systemic investigations. The exercise included the assessment of a group of Crown corporations and Agents of Parliament (including my office), which had recently come under the Act. We followed up with 13 institutions that had performed poorly in previous assessments. Based on the data collected, we launched a systemic investigation on the sources of delays, particularly mandatory consultations. We are also investigating allegations of interference with the access to information process at PWGS.

In the current context of fiscal restraint, all institutions must seek more efficient ways to serve Canadians. This is why, upon taking office, I undertook a strategic planning process with my staff and key stakeholders to determine priorities and chart a roadmap for the first years of my term. This plan will help us achieve significant outcomes in three key areas:

  • exemplary service delivery,
  • a well-governed workplace of choice; and
  • a leading access to information regime.

To provide exemplary service, we will continue to refine our case management strategies while developing a comprehensive talent management framework. In this endeavour, we will build on the results from the audit of our investigative processes.  The results were very positive and provide excellent value-added input.

Of course, our success in delivering exemplary service will be predicated on sound governance and the quality of our workplace. In this area, I am proud to report that, once again last year, we obtained a "clean," unmodified audit from the Auditor General.

To foster a leading access regime, Mr. Chairman, you can count on my continued support and advice. I applaud the Canadian government for its 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."

Minister Clement has taken the helm of the open government initiative, which notably includes an Open Information component that promises to take access to information closer to the digital age. I also welcome Minister Baird's commitment this week to have Canada join the multinational Open Government Partnership. We will follow these government initiatives with great interest. They 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.

As reflected in Treasury Board Secretariat statistics, 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.

Current needs and expectations of Canadians require that we reverse these declining trends in timeliness and disclosure. I have committed and undertaken to use all the powers and tools at my disposal to influence this outcome, starting with effective and timely investigations of complaints.

Mr. Chairman, 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. This forum will provide an excellent opportunity for international commissioners, practitioners and advocates to exchange ideas for the advancement of access to information. I am very excited to host this important event here in Ottawa, and I invite you all to join the discussions.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the hard work and unwavering dedication of my staff, to whom I owe much of our accomplishments. I also urge this Committee to continue to advocate for more open government, for more timely and greater access to information. I look forward to many more appearances to discuss contributions to this very important pillar of democracy.

I would be pleased now to answer your questions.

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