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Report Cards


Year


2007-2008

Consultations  

Consultations create challenges for the administration of the Act. Yet they have not received the special attention they deserve. The whole question of consultations has largely flown under the radar as evidenced by the fact that statistics are not collected on the volume of consultation requests institutions handle each year. Apart from case-by-case information gathered in complaint investigations and through this report cards process, there is no data on how consultation requests are treated by institutions.

Responses to our questionnaire and our interviews with institutions suggest that there are two aspects of concern with respect to consultation requests: the first is the volume and their impact on institutions’ workload; the second is the delays caused by consultation requests.

The volume and impact of consultations is of particular interest. The need to consult arises from system-wide interdependencies between institutions, which are a natural consequence of the growing connectedness or horizontality of government operations. It is becoming increasingly rare for any one particular policy or operational issue and the documents related to them to be of interest solely to one federal institution. As a result, consultation requests are increasing the workload of institutions. For example, requests for consultation sent to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT) represent as much as 58 percent of their overall workload; for Justice Canada, it is as high as 75 percent. This burden on institutions is not currently recognized, measured or appropriately resourced.

The second aspect relates to delays resulting from consultations particularly mandatory consultations that create a noteworthy system-wide bottleneck.7 The institution in receipt of the request remains responsible for completing the request within the statutory timelines and is dependent upon the efficiency and goodwill of the consulted institution. Whenever an institution determines that consultation is necessary, it will invoke an extension based on an estimate of the time to complete the consultation. Ideally, this estimate is consensually determined with the consulted institution. If the time required for consulting is underestimated, the responsible institution will very likely find itself in violation of the statutory timelines. If it is overestimated, the request will take longer than necessary. Our finding, in the case of some institutions, of a sizeable gap between the length of time claimed for an extension for the purpose of a consultation and the actual time taken to get a response from the consulted institution, is troubling in this regard.

Institutions have developed and adopted various practices in order to manage the risk of long delays resulting from consultation requests. For example, an institution might release the information not subject to consultation and consider the matter closed.

There is no shortage of good ideas for institutions to pick from to improve consultations. We have observed effective or expeditious consultations where institutions work closer together. For example, Justice Canada and Library and Archives Canada use collaborative instruments such as memoranda of understanding to expedite the processing of requests subject to consultations. National Defence instituted a tasking team to concentrate on incoming and outgoing consultations. Justice Canada also introduced a fast-track process to respond to low-risk requests for consultations on solicitor-client privilege.

It stands to reason that, if an institution has to choose between allocating scarce resources to an information request for which it is accountable, or handling a consultation request from another institution for which it is not accountable, the institution is likely to focus on its own information request in order not to jeopardize its performance rating. But what is optimal for the institution when considered in isolation is not necessarily optimal for the access to information system as a whole. One institution’s risk management strategy becomes another institution’s problem, as well as a problem for the information requester.  

7 The Treasury Board Secretariat requires all requests involving matters relating to international affairs, defence or national security (section 15) and matters relating to law enforcement and penal institutions (section 16) to consult with relevant institutions. Matters related to Cabinet confidences (section 69) are also subject to mandatory consultations.

Recommendation 5

That the Treasury Board Secretariat collects annual statistics, starting in fiscal year 2010–2011, on consultations pursuant to paragraphs 9(1)b) and 9(1)c):

  1. For consultation requests sent to other federal institutions:
    1. number of consultation requests sent;
    2. number of mandatory consultation requests sent pursuant to:
      1. section 15;
      2. section 16;
      3. section 69;
    3. number of pages sent for review;
    4. average time to receive a response;
      1. overall ;
      2. for mandatory consultations;
  2. For consultation requests received from other federal institutions:
    1. number of consultation requests received;
    2. number of pages reviewed;
    3. average time to respond;
  3. For consultation requests sent to third parties (pursuant to paragraphs 9(1)b) and 9(1)c) ):
    1. number of consultation requests sent;
    2. average time to receive a response;
  

Response to recommendations 3, 4 and 5 

Collection of Statistics 

Since the coming into force of the Access to Information Act in 1983, the Treasury Board Secretariat has been collecting statistical information through institutional annual reporting, which it then publishes on a yearly basis in the Info Source Bulletin. More recently, the Federal Accountability Act broadened the mandate of the President of the Treasury Board with respect to statistics. In this regard, the Treasury Board Secretariat is in the process of reviewing the collection of statistics to ensure that they are useful and provide a comprehensive picture of the government's access to information and privacy (ATIP) program. The Secretariat is striving to achieve a balanced approach that will encourage sound practices within institutions to foster quality and timeliness. 

As an initial step in this project, the Secretariat reviewed provincial and international jurisdictions with similar access to information and privacy regimes to examine approaches and the collection of statistical information. It was found

that the Canadian Government is at the forefront in the area of reporting on its overall performance. The Secretariat also consulted the ATIP community, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and your office to determine what data would

be most useful to all parties, while at the same time ensuring that an undue administrative burden is not placed on government institutions.

Next, the expertise of Statistics Canada was sought to assist in a review of the proposed data collection and the content of the new statistical reporting forms. In addition, the Secretariat is chairing a working group that provides ongoing

feedback and will participate in a pilot project to test the feasibility of the proposed collection. At this time, the Treasury Board Secretariat is considering the collection of additional data related to delays, consultations and extensions,

among others. As next steps, consultations will be undertaken with software providers to ensure

that the proposed collection is achievable. The Secretariat will continue to consult your office and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. It is expected that the collection of additional statistics will begin in 2010-2011. The Secretariat will then be in a better position to assess the compliance of government institutions with the provisions of the Act and the Regulations.


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