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Funding the Commissioner's Office
During this reporting year, two committees of the House (Standing Committee on Public Accounts and Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics) and one Senate Committee (Standing Committee on National Finance) recommended that a new system for funding Officers of Parliament be adopted. In particular, they recommended that Parliament play a greater role in assessing the resource needs of its five independent officers (Information Commissioner, Privacy Commissioner, Auditor General, Commissioner of Official Languages, and Chief Electoral Officer). These three committees concluded that the then existing system, under which government ministers (Treasury Board) decide on the level of resources that will be given to Officers of Parliament, constituted a threat to the independence and effectiveness of Officers who have oversight functions vis-à-vis government ministers and institutions.
The former Liberal government agreed to participate in a pilot project for two fiscal years (2006-07 and 2007-08). The pilot involved the creation of an ad hoc committee of representatives from all parties represented in the House of Commons. The committee – called the House of Commons Panel on the Funding of Officers of Parliament – is chaired by the Speaker of the House.
The "mandate" of the House of Commons Panel is to consider resource requests from Officers of Parliament, taking into account the views of Treasury Board Secretariat officials and experts, if necessary, and to make recommendations as to the level and mix of resources which Treasury Board ministers should provide. The former government agreed that, for the period of the pilot project, it would – barring financial crisis – follow the panel’s recommendations.
The panel met in November of 2005 to consider requests for additional resources submitted, separately, by the Information Commissioner and the Privacy Commissioner. In the case of the Information Commissioner, the panel recommended increases of $2,814,006 for FY 2006-07, $2,262,028 for FY 2007-08, $2,262,028 for FY 2008-09, and $1,505,286 for 2009-10 and future years. The full text of the panel’s recommendations is available on our website at www.oic-ci.gc.ca .
On January 19, 2006, Treasury Board ministers accepted the panel’s recommendation. Regrettably, Treasury Board ministers at that January 19th meeting, just prior to the election, reneged on an understanding between the OIC and TBS that there would be some additional funding for 2005-06 (by way of supplementary estimates or Vote 5 transfers). The expected additional funding would be consistent with the terms recommended for funding by the panel, and would allow the Information Commissioner to jumpstart the initiatives approved by the panel. To learn, just two months before the end of the fiscal year, that some $450,000 of expected funding would not be forthcoming, imposed an enormous challenge for the Information Commissioner’s office. Many ongoing activities, such as the completion of report card reviews, proceeding with systemic investigations, staffing vacant positions, purchasing basic supplies, investigator training, servicing information technology and working tools, translating reports and speeches, investigation-related travel, had to be terminated. The office’s ability to meet backlog reduction and turnaround time targets was significantly compromised.
On the bright side, the former government’s punitive decision with respect to the 2005-06 budget – a period not covered by the House of Commons Panel pilot project – shows how vitally important the panel’s role will be in future.
In the longer term, it is to be hoped that the informal, ad hoc House of Commons Panel will become a formalized joint committee of the House and Senate. That would be more appropriate for Officers who report to both Houses of Parliament. As well, it is to be hoped that the panel will reconsider its decision to conduct its budget reviews behind closed doors. All Officers of Parliament agree that, except in exceptional circumstances, their independence and accountability is best served by having the Parliamentary review process conducted in public.
It is especially important to note that the funding panel recognized, from the outset, that the government has a vital role to play in helping to reduce the Information Commissioner’s workload. The panel recognized that the number of complaints to the Information Commissioner can best be reduced at the front end by better service to access requesters.
To that end, the panel made special note of a commitment by Treasury Board Secretariat officials to submit a report to the panel in the Fall of 2007 on the measures it has taken with government institutions and the Information Commissioner’s office to ensure compliance across government with the Access to Information Act. This reporting commitment by the Treasury Board Secretariat may be a long-overdue signal that the Secretariat intends to give greater priority to its leadership role in making the Access to Information Act work at the front lines.