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CHAPTER 1- The Year Gone By
The presence of the new Information Commissioner and a renewed commitment to the role and functions of the Office brought about significant activity in 2007-2008 to take the Office in a new direction.
A year ago, it would not have been an understatement to say that the state of affairs at the Office was such that our ability to deliver services to parliamentarians, federal institutions and Canadians was severely compromised. A number of factors accounted for this, including burdensome investigative processes, insufficient staff, outdated technology, and limited communications, policy development, and administrative support.
The impact of the Federal Accountability Act and the resulting amendments to the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act has also been substantial and required supplementary funding.
During 2007-2008, about 70 institutions, including Crown corporations, such as the CBC and Canada Post, and their wholly owned subsidiaries, and various foundations and agencies, such as the Canadian Wheat Board, became subject to the Act. This represents a 37 percent increase in the number of institutions covered by the Act, and brings the total to more than 250.
Among that group of institutions was the Office of the Information Commissioner. Our new status required us to set up an effective access to information and privacy process (seeChapter 2). As part of this process, we appointed an ad hoc Information Commissioner to respond to access to information complaints about us (see Appendix 1 for the Commissioner's annual report).
Another major implication of the increase in institutions subject to the Act is that we are now managing a larger volume of complaints. In fact, the number of complaints increased in 2007-2008 by more than 80 percent from last year (see Chapter 3 for facts and figures on our caseload this year). We also provide assistance to the new institutions as they gain experience in administering the Act and the complaint process.
To begin to address the serious challenges we faced, we obtained additional funds to allow us to meet the requirements of the Federal Accountability Act, as well as to establish and maintain an internal audit function, as required by Treasury Board. The latter includes developing a risk-based internal audit plan and setting up an independent audit committee comprising members from outside the Office and the public service.
We also received funding to carry out a thorough review of our operations and budget (called an A-base review). For more information, see Chapter 7.
Beyond this, we put considerable effort into building organizational capacity and developing our core functions. Here are some examples of work in this regard in 2007-2008:
- Staffing: we hired new people to help with our investigations.
- Communications: we adopted a proactive approach to communicating more clearly, openly and effectively with all our stakeholders and took the initial steps towards setting up a dedicated communications unit.
- Information management and technology: we began to modernize our systems to provide all employees with more effective tools to do their work.
- Policy development: we began to strengthen our internal policy and research capabilities to provide advice from our unique perspective to Parliament and federal institutions.
Streamlining our complaints-handling process
In the last few years, we have reported a continuing and persistent backlog of cases. The situation did not improve in 2007-2008, despite our considerable efforts to reduce the caseload. At year-end, almost 85 percent of our cases were in backlog, according to our service standards.
Nonetheless, the Commissioner has made a clear public commitment to eliminate the historical backlog by the end of the 2009-2010, and much of the work we did this year puts us in good stead to meet that goal. In particular, we identified 11 actions we will take to ensure that we resolve complaints more efficiently and at the earliest opportunity, and make decisions faster and fairly (see box).
- Restructure the Complaints Resolution and Compliance Branch to reduce bottlenecks in the management review and approval of cases.
- Staff vacant and new positions.
- Delegate some approvals of cases to the director and chief levels.
- Place priority on the oldest files.
- Supplement investigators' work with assistance of temporary workers to accelerate the completion of investigations of older files.
- Monitor the progress of cases more closely internally and in federal institutions.
- Review our complaints-handling process.
- Assess the benefits of a dedicated intake and early resolution function.
- Review our internal service standards.
- Conduct best practices sessions internally and with the access to information community.
- Develop tools and information (e.g., forms, checklists and practice notes) to help complainants, federal institutions and others.
We gathered ideas for strengthening and streamlining our complaints-handling process from our staff, from provincial counterparts that have solved similar problems and from a consulting firm with expertise in performance management and program evaluation. (The firm's report is available on our website: rr-sl-odi-adi.aspx).
Here are some of the key recommendations:
- establish a dedicated intake and early resolution unit that prioritizes complaints according to a set of clear criteria;
- abandon our existing service standards as ineffective and develop internal performance targets for communicating expected timelines to complainants, based on the nature and complexity of the complaint;
- redefine the complaints in the backlog as those that have been assessed by the intake and early resolution unit as valid but have not yet been assigned to an investigator; and
- implement a portfolio approach to investigations to allow investigators to develop expertise with certain institutions.
We also plan to meet with representatives from several federal institutions that have recently become subject to the Access to Information Act to discuss their experience and get their feedback on our approach to resolving complaints. We will also produce tools and information that will help complainants and institutions navigate the complaints process.
Renewing the report cards process
Each year, federal institutions eagerly await the Office of the Information Commissioner's annual report cards, which detail how well they met their obligations under the Access to Information Act.
Requesters and institutions alike turn to the report cards to get a broad perspective on their overall performance administering the Act, in contrast to the specific results of individual investigations.
Former Commissioner, the Honourable John Reid, introduced the report cards a decade ago. Their advent brought about a significant drop in the number of access to information complaints against institutions. However, in recent years, the number of some types of complaints is on the rise again. This made us realize that we need to enhance the report cards to better help institutions comply with the Act. To that end, we reviewed the whole report card process and concluded that, while report cards are still a priority for us and an important part of our work, we needed to make significant improvements to the way we prepare them, what they measure and how we communicate the results to institutions, Parliament and the public.
In particular, we found that the current process focuses mainly on delays and consequently does not uncover nor allow us to communicate information that accurately reflect institutions' ongoing efforts, or lack thereof, to improve compliance. The process also does not shed any light on the reasons why selected institutions are performing the way they are.
We wish to link the report card process to the government's performance management framework, which is based on the fiscal year of April 1 to March 31. As a result, our report cards will be more effective in holding heads of institutions accountable for their organizations' access to information performance and coincide with the performance review cycle common to government and Parliament.
Our new approach to report cards is more balanced than the previous process and will help us produce a more complete picture of the performance of the selected institutions. We will evaluate institutions within a framework designed to put more information in context, which will help reveal institutions' strengths and weaknesses, and the progress they have made in complying with the Act.
We have built in time for collaboration with institutions as we do the assessment and we will also allow each institution to comment on a preliminary version of our report. At the same time as we issue the report cards, we will publish action plans and responses from the institutions, to provide details beyond a simple rating of access to information request delays, including contextual information that will help institutions understand the underlying reasons for their performance results, good or bad.
Our intention with this new process is to address issues that permeate the whole access to information system and to contribute to improvement by making recommendations and best practices readily available for all institutions to implement.
Here are five key aspects of the report card process we will implement in 2008-2009:
- Review period: We will base our assessment on the fiscal year, linked to the government's planning cycle.
- Selection of institutions: We will select institutions to report on according to criteria such as results from the previous year (for this transition year only), trends uncovered by the complaints we receive, and other issues of interest to us. We will also choose at least one institution with a good track record to allow us to identify best practices.
- The assessment: During this transition year, we will continue to measure performance against deemed refusals. However, we will also go beyond that to look at delays resulting from systemic factors such as the rising number of consultations with other institutions and additional layers of approvals and their impact on delays.
- Reporting: Rather than reporting results in our annual report, which we usually publish in June, we will table a special report in the fall. This report will contain analysis and recommendations. The report's release will also coincide with the annual tabling of departmental performance reports, which will give Parliament a better perspective on institutions' performance under the Access to Information Act.
- Process: We will gather information from the selected institutions and, during the summer, will provide them with a preliminary analysis for discussion, clarification and revision, as required. At the end of October, the Commissioner will table the final report to Parliament, and we will post it on our website.
We will be reporting on the following federal institutions in 2008-2009:
- Canada Border Services Agency;
- Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade;
- Department of Justice Canada;
- Department of National Defence;
- Health Canada;
- Library and Archives Canada;
- Natural Resources Canada;
- Privy Council Office;
- Public Works and Government Services Canada; and
- Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Building relationships with partners and Parliament
On a number of occasions during his first year in office, the Information Commissioner has publicly stated his commitment to fostering good relations with all the players in the access to information system-from requesters, to complainants, to institutions, to Parliament. This bridge building will contribute to better stewardship of the system and promote openness in government.
During 2007-2008, we took part in many policy projects with other officers of Parliament, provincial and territorial regulators, and federal institutions. For example, with the Treasury Board Secretariat we have been actively involved in the renewal of access to information policies.
With the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Officers of Parliament Working Group, we reviewed ways for officers of Parliament to apply Treasury Board policies while preserving their independence.
We are partnering with Library and Archives Canada on a pilot project to develop documentation standards for small organizations, such as the Office, which will help us and other small institutions that have recently become subject to the Access to Information Act to develop information management policies.
We are also working with the Canadian School of Public Service and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to develop a curriculum to train public servants in the areas of access to information and privacy.
We continue to support the University of Alberta's Information Access and Protection of Privacy Certificate Program as a member of the program's Advisory Committee and by enrolling staff in the program.
As part of Right to Know Week in the fall of 2007, we held a one-day seminar on various aspects of citizens' right to know, featuring presentations by experts in the field and from the Office on the fundamentals of access to information in Canada and how it can be improved. The Commissioner gave the keynote speech on his approach to fostering openness in government. The two assistant commissioners participated in similar events held by some of our provincial counterparts.
During 2007-2008, we began work with the Department of Justice and the Treasury Board Secretariat on legislative and administrative initiatives related to access to information. As part of the work on the legislative reform, we prepared a reference document that lists the proposals contained in the draft bill, the Open Government Act, a proposed revision to the Access to Information Act, with their sources. A copy of the document is available on our website (rp-pr-ori-ari.aspx).
As an officer of Parliament, the Commissioner enjoys a special rapport with Parliament. Parliamentarians rely on the Commissioner for objective advice about the access to information implications of legislation, jurisprudence, regulations and policies. The Commissioner is devoted to helping Parliament play its vital role of holding federal institutions and officials accountable for the proper administration of the Act. In order to better achieve this goal, we have created a unit to respond to parliamentarians' enquiries and to keep legislators and decision makers informed about developments in the world of access to information. For example, the Commissioner and other officials participated in a Library of Parliament seminar series, making a presentation in February 2008 on the rights, objectives and challenges associated with access to information.
In addition, the Commissioner, accompanied by representatives from the Office, appeared a number of times before parliamentary committees in 2007-2008:
Mr. Marleau’s first appearance as Information Commissioner before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics took place in April 2007 to discuss the Office’s spending estimates for the year.
- He appeared again before the Committee in May 2007 to discuss the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade report Afghanistan 2006: Good Governance, Democratic Development and Human Rights.
- Another appearance before the Committee took place in November 2007 to discuss future business.
- Finally, the Commissioner appeared before the Advisory Committee on the Funding and Oversight of Officers of Parliament in December 2007 to seek funding related to the coming into force of the Federal Accountability Act and the requirement for us to set up an internal audit function.