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Reviews (report cards)

This year marked the introduction of a new methodology for the report cards process. In the mid-1990s, when we introduced the report cards as a way to measure institutional performance, we tended to focus on one performance indicator: an institution’s rate of deemed refusals (requests not responded to within 30 days of receipt or within the extended timelines provided for in the Act). This approach had the advantage of being simple and objective. It boiled the question of institutional performance down to one measure that was easy to explain, understand and calculate. The rate of deemed refusals remains a very important measure, especially in today’s fast-paced digital environment. However, the concept of good performance under the Act is multi-faceted.

Over the years, the annual publication of the report cards has had a positive impact. We initially observed a dramatic reduction in the number of delay complaints. We also know of many cases of institutions that had received low grades making extraordinary efforts to achieve higher scores in subsequent years. The effectiveness of the report cards also caught the interest of one of our provincial counterparts. In February 2009, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia published his first report on the performance of provincial institutions under that province’s access to information legislation.

Although there is no doubt that our reviews have been effective in the past, their effectiveness has waned of late. One reason may be that they did not provide the whole picture of how the institutions performed. Consequently, we redesigned the process to gather information that would help us shed light on contextual factors, while keeping a strong focus on whether institutions are responding to requests within the statutory timelines. We paid particular attention to data on the use and duration of time extensions, the rising number of consultations and layers of approval, and their impact on delays. We also identified best practices for institutions to emulate.

In keeping with our new business model (see Chapter 2), we reported on system-wide trends affecting the capacity of institutions to fulfill their obligations under the Act but that are often beyond their control. We also identified areas to improve our work in relation to the report cards process.

On February 26, 2009, we tabled a special report to Parliament including a comprehensive report card for each of the 10 institutions we reviewed this year (see chart).2

2 For more information, go to
http://www.oic-ci.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr_spe-rep_rap-spe_rep-car_fic-ren_2007-2008.aspx

Institution Overall performance rating
Canada Border Services Agency 2.5 Stars Below average
Department of Justice Canada 5 Stars Outstanding
Department of National Defence Below average
Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada Below average
Health Canada Below average
Library and Archives Canada 4.5 stars Above Average
Natural Resources Canada 3.5 Stars Average
Privy Council Office Average
Public Works and Government Services Canada Below average
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Below average

As the chart shows, 6 out of the 10 institutions we assessed performed below average. Reasons varied but generally included excessive workload, accumulated backlogs, lack of resources and inefficient processes. Our most significant finding was that the 30-day timeline intended by Parliament for institutions to respond to requests is becoming the exception instead of the norm. Our analysis confirms what Canadians have been experiencing: it takes a long time to obtain information from institutions. Only 48 percent of the requests are being answered within 30 days and 66 percent within the extended times allowed under the Act. Given the requirements of the Act, we should have found that a large number of requests are answered within 30 days and, where time extensions are needed to complete the processing of requests, 100 percent are answered within statutory timelines.

Based on our findings, we outlined a number of changes that need to be made to ensure that institutions live up to their access to information obligations, including the following:

* allocate adequate and permanent resources to access to information units;

* abide by the obligation to notify the Information Commissioner of every time extension taken beyond 30 days;

* review processing methods for information requests (including approvals) to improve efficiency and timeliness;

* improve tracking and reporting mechanisms, particularly with respect to processing time, extensions and consultations; and

* ensure that requesters are well informed of their rights to complain to us.

Institutions have provided their action plan to address these recommendations and we will monitor their progress in 2009–2010.

Through the report cards process, we also identified a number of system-wide issues that significantly affect access in general and that require urgent change. These issues, which are discussed in detail in our special report, include widespread deficiencies in information management, the prevalence of extensions, the negative impact of the consultation process, chronic gaps in human resources capacity and training, and a lack of effective executive leadership in the area of access to information.

The strongest administrative recommendations in the special report call on the Treasury Board Secretariat to do the following:

* properly assess, resource and improve information management practices throughout government;

* improve the statistical data collected to provide a more accurate picture of institutional performance;

* develop an integrated human resources action plan that will address current gaps in access to information resources; part of the solution requires professionalizing access personnel by establishing a formal training program and certification standards; and

* review and improve the criteria under the Management Accountability Framework for measuring the overall performance of institutions in meeting their obligations under the Act.

Finally, we will publish a three-year plan for our performance reviews, starting in 2009–2010. The report cards process is about providing constructive criticism in order to encourage compliance with the Act. We believe that a three-year plan will assist federal institutions in conducting their operations in accordance with the Act and, hopefully, will instill self-discipline across the system. The plan will provide advance notice to institutions, allowing them sufficient time to adequately prepare for a review.

 

 

 

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