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MESSAGE FROM THE COMMISSIONER
This special report on the performance of federal institutions under the Access to Information Act (the Act) covers my first full year as Information Commissioner. It also introduces important changes to the Office of the Information Commissioner’s report cards process.
Shortly after taking office, through discussions with members of the access to information community, I came to realize that this process — as useful as it was — could be improved by providing the whole picture of institutional compliance while reflecting efforts by institutions to improve their performance. More importantly, it could shed light on contextual factors affecting the capacity of institutions to fulfill their obligations under the Act, and help to identify system-wide issues beyond the control of any given institution.
Consequently, I have introduced an enhanced assessment framework which allows us to examine such issues while uncovering best practices which would deserve to be more widely replicated. We focused our efforts this year on analyzing factors that create delays across the system, such as the rising number of consultation requests, the use of lengthy extensions and multi-layered approval processes.
As Information Commissioner, I am often asked about my views on the state of the access to information regime and on ways to improve it. Although I would caution readers that this year’s assessment does not constitute a scientific audit, I do believe that its results provide a grim picture of the federal government’s access to information regime.
The most significant and wide-reaching finding attests to the fact that the 30-day period intended by Parliament to be the norm in responding to information requests is the exception. The prevalence of extensions and consultation requests has significantly slowed down the treatment of requests, to the point that some institutions take an average of 120 days to respond to requesters. This is unacceptable.
Our assessment identified significant information management challenges which greatly influence the capacity of institutions to provide complete, accurate and timely responses to information requests. It has also confirmed important shortcomings with respect to staffing and training in the area of access to information.
The current context clearly mandates a more sophisticated compliance model for access to information, which will include adequate performance incentives. Modernizing the legislative framework and the administrative process will not be sufficient. As the report suggests, a stronger regime requires the will and leadership necessary to guide a cultural change away from a tendency to withhold information to a true climate of openness. Government officials must be empowered and learn to act in the spirit as well as the letter of the law when it comes to access to information.
It is my hope that the recommendations contained in this report will generate the kind of action and debate required to update and strengthen Canada’s access to information regime, which is so critical to upholding our democratic way of life.
Information Commissioner of Canada