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How Much Secrecy is Appropriate for a Draft Audit Report?

Background

A journalist made a request to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) for access to a copy of the report (or draft report) of an internal audit of travel and hospitality expenses. At the time of the request, the report of the audit had not been approved by the CRA’s management, so it was considered to be a draft report. CRA decided to refuse access to any portion of the report relying on paragraphs 21(1)(a) and (b) of the Access to Information Act to justify its decision. The requester did not accept that every portion qualified for exemption, and he complained to the Information Commissioner.

Legal Issues

Paragraph 21(1)(a) authorizes refusal to disclose internal advice or recommendations; paragraph 21(1)(b) authorizes refusal to disclose accounts of internal consultations or deliberations. CRA argued that the very purpose of audit reports is to provide senior management with advice and recommendations and that such reports contain accounts of consultations and deliberations among public officials. Moreover, the CRA argued, the very process of getting approval for a draft audit report is itself a "consultation and deliberation" – a process which should be kept confidential. According to CRA, it fully intended to publicly disclose the final report, but did not consider it appropriate to disclose a draft version which might contain misleading, incorrect or incomplete information.

The Information Commissioner reminded CRA of its obligation, set out in section 25 of the Act, to avoid blanket secrecy in favor of a page-by-page, line-by-line analysis into specific portions which may deserve secrecy. For example, the Information Commissioner reminded CRA that factual and background information would not qualify for exemption and should be disclosed.

The department agreed that it should not have decided to withhold the entire draft audit report; it agreed that portions could have been severed and disclosed without revealing advice, recommendations or accounts of consultations or deliberations.

The requester suggested that, rather than asking the CRA to prepare and release a severed version of the draft report, the CRA be asked to give him an advance copy of the final version, when it was ready. CRA agreed, and, on that basis, the complaint was considered resolved.

Lessons Learned

In most institutions there is concern about disclosure, under the Act, of draft audit reports or audit reports in the approval process. Some of this concern relates to the integrity of the audit process (i.e. concerns about incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading content); some of the concern relates to a perceived need to "manage the message". Most government institutions do not wish to disclose audit reports until the institution’s head, its public affairs branch, and, in some cases, central agencies have been fully informed, and until a communications "plan" or "line" has been developed. No matter what the concern, however, it is rarely justifiable to withhold a draft report in its entirety. By their nature, audit reports contain descriptive and factual information that will not qualify for section 21 exemptions. 

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