Remarks by the Information Commissioner of Canada

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy And Ethics

Subject-matter of the Supplementary Estimates (B) 2014-15: Vote 5b under Offices of the Information and Privacy Commissioners Of Canada

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Check against delivery

Good afternoon. Thank you for asking me to appear today. I am here with Layla Michaud, my Chief Financial Officer and Director General.

Mr. Chair, I would like to tell you briefly about the work my office has been doing to support transparency and accountability during my term as Information Commissioner.

I am doubtful, however, that I can sustain this important contribution to Canadian democracy given the volume of work and the financial situation the office is currently facing.

As you know, the Access to Information Act establishes the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada as the first level of independent review of government decisions about releasing information under the Act. Requesters who are not satisfied with how institutions handled their access request have the right to complain to my office. And in turn, I have the legal obligation to investigate all complaints that fall under the Act.

Because of the work of my office, Canadians often receive more information than institutions were originally willing to release. I also help requesters get information more quickly. After the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, for example, I was able to secure much earlier releases of information than Transport Canada had originally proposed.

Since 2009–2010, I looked at all my investigative and business processes to identify efficiencies and I significantly improved how my team handles complaints. As a result, we have completed more than 10,000 complaints. Most of these complaints were resolved without the need to resort to the Federal Court which is the second level of review under the Act.

For the remaining unresolved cases, my legal team has litigated these matters before the courts, with the consent of complainants. Over the years, I have also made recommendations to the President of the Treasury Board on various ways to advance accountability and transparency. I am pleased that most of the recommendations have been implemented by the government.

Through the last four years, I also found better ways to carry out crucial financial and governance functions. I did internal reallocations to provide maximum support to investigations.

I have been able to achieve these accomplishments as my budget was decreasing. The reality is that I now have 11 percent less money to do my work.

Then, last fiscal year, I faced a 30-percent jump in new complaints which has brought the organization to a crisis point. Despite closing 10 percent more files than in the previous year, the inventory of complaints grew by 16 percent. That was the first such increase under my watch.

So, in addition to having an investigative team stretched to the limit, I have no financial flexibility to augment my investigative capacity or to set aside for contingencies. My budget is so tight that I lapsed just $37,000 at the end of last year. I therefore have no money to respond to unforeseen circumstances such as a server breakdown.

The situation will simply get worse, since both the number of complaints and the financial pressures will continue to grow.

Unless my budget is increased, I have only one option going into the next fiscal year to keep within my appropriations: to cut the program.

This is not a decision I take lightly. My independent oversight role is crucial to the access to information system, which is itself the foundation of transparency and accountability. The government has identified these as priorities. The work I and my office do is crucial to its being able to meet them.

But, as my workload grows, the gap between when I receive files and when I can assign them to investigators is increasing. The resulting delays are already jeopardizing the right of access. Requesters will have to wait even longer to get information. This, in turn, will delay their rights to pursue the matter through the Federal Court since they must wait until my investigation is completed to do so.

Such developments are the last thing I want to see for Canadians that have a right to timely access to government information.

I have raised the red flag about my financial circumstances at every available opportunity. I have also pursued every option available to me to preserve my budget and ensure the integrity of the program. This includes making requests for funding through the 2014 and, most recently, the 2015 Budget process, so far, without success.

In conclusion, let me say that I believe my actions during my time as Commissioner clearly demonstrate what I have always believed—that effective management of public funds is of paramount importance.

I have told committee members in the past that I would have very difficult decisions to make to keep within appropriations, deliver on my mandate and maintain excellence in governance. I have certainly had to make those decisions.

As I said in my latest Departmental Performance Report, “without additional funding, I will no longer be able to carry out my mandate responsibly and ensure full respect of Canadians ‘rights of access to information.”

If no resources are forthcoming, I will, as a responsible steward of public funds, need to make cuts into the program to ensure my office continues to operate with the appropriations granted.

Rest assured: I will back away from the fiscal cliff rather than going over the edge. But, as I do, Canadians’ quasi constitutional right of access will be increasingly denied.

Thank you. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.