Remarks by the Assistant Information Commissioner of Canada

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy And Ethics

Vote 1 under the Office of the Information of Canada

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

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Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the opportunity to discuss the operations of the Office of the Information Commissioner and outlining some of our key priorities for the year ahead. I am Emily McCarthy, Assistant Information Commissioner. I am accompanied by Layla Michaud, the Office’s Director General of Corporate Services and Chief Financial Officer. The Commissioner sends her regrets that she is unable to appear today.

This year, the Office of the Information Commissioner’s budget to support its program activities is $11.2 million, which represents a decrease of $3.3 million from 2013-2014. This reduction reflects a one-time $2.6 million loan received in 2013-2014 for the relocation of the office to Gatineau, the associated loan repayment for 2014-2015 and the sunsetting of the five-year IM/IT strategy.

The Office of the Information Commissioner employs 93 full-time equivalents – 70 of whom carry out the program and 23 in various corporate services functions.

Over the last three years, the focus of the Commissioner has been on the realization of the key priorities set out in her Strategic Plan, which comes to an end this year.

One of these key priorities is to provide exemplary service to Canadians. This priority relates to our core business which is to investigate complaints about institutions’ handling of access requests.

Over the last three years, our investigators have completed more than 4,700 complaints. We have improved how quickly investigators respond to complainants and got additional information released whenever possible. We have also implemented a strategic approach to managing our caseload.

Looking ahead to the current year, we will complete the remaining commitments identified in the Office’s Strategic Plan. For example, we will continue to improve our investigations of complex refusal complaints. This will involve setting clear steps and timelines for the investigative process. This will allow us to closely monitor ongoing investigations to further improve timeliness. We will also be introducing, on a pilot-basis, a process which will seek to rapidly resolve or clarify complaints. These enhancements will strengthen the process and make it more efficient.

The Commissioner will also issue a comprehensive report in which she will make recommendations for the modernization of the Access to Information Act. The focus will be on suggestions for reforms that respond to factors that have had a profound effect on access to information since the Act became law in 1983 such as technological developments. These suggestions will be based on the Commissioner’s unique perspective as the first-level of independent oversight.

Finally, we will fully implement the new integrated human resources plan. The cornerstone of this plan is excellence.

This year, the Commissioner will develop a new Strategic Plan to see the Office through to the end of her term in 2017. This will be done in consultation with employees and other stakeholders.

As you will see in the office’s Report on Plans and Priorities, everyone at the Office of the Information Commissioner is working to meet demanding performance targets: to complete 85 percent of administrative cases within 90 days and 75 percent of priority or early resolution cases within six months.

However, a key element of risk to the office remains our financial resources. The Commissioner has said in previous appearances that the office has no financial and organizational flexibility. She has raised concerns that this will impact on her ability to deliver on her mandate.

Over the past four fiscal years, the Office’s budget has been impacted by nearly 9 percent due to cuts and other measures. In addition to these impacts, we will need to review our planned expenditures in light of the two-year operational spending freeze announced in the 2013 Speech from the Throne, which will take effect in 2014–2015.

At the same time, our workload is growing. In 2013-2014 we received 2,081 new complaints; an increase of 30 percent over the previous year.

As of March 31, 2014, we had 2,089 complaints in our inventory, having closed 1,789 during the year. This closure rate is 10 percent higher than the previous year and 20 percent higher than 2011-12. However, due to the increase in new complaints, our inventory grew, for the first time in five years. Given this workload and the office’s limited resources, there is now, on average, a 6 month gap between the time a complaint is registered and the time it is assigned to an investigator.

Under these circumstances, the Commissioner is concerned about her continued ability to deliver on her mandate which would jeopardize the rights conferred by the Act.

The Commissioner however has clearly indicated that she is resolved to continue. She has an ambitious agenda for this year. And she has a dedicated group of employees who will continue to make every effort to serve Canadians to the best of their ability.

Thank you, Mr. Chair. I would be pleased to answer any questions members may have.