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Message from the Interim Commissioner

I am pleased to submit to Parliament this special report, which is part of my office’s Three-Year Plan for Report Cards and Systemic Issues. This plan takes a comprehensive approach to the assessment of delays in responses to access requests in order to better identify and address the issues at play.

Despite warnings and recommendations, delays continue to be the Achilles’ heel of the access to information system and have yet to be appropriately addressed across the government. Chronic delays are generating an increasing number of complaints, which compound the pressure on institutions, particularly those that are under-resourced. As a result, delays continue to erode requesters’ right to timely access to information.

This right is at risk of being totally obliterated because delays threaten to render the entire access regime irrelevant in our current information economy. Ever-evolving information and communications technologies have increased expectations for a quick dissemination of information enabling content creation and innovation. The government should be leading this new development or, at the very least, keeping up with the pace.

In preparing the report cards, we sought the representations of access coordinators—key players within institutions— about what contributes to or inhibits their operations. The process has largely benefited from the collaboration and experience of the coordinators and their staff. These public servants have a unique perspective as their mandate is about ensuring transparency, yet they work within an increasingly risk averse environment.

We have enlarged our sample of institutions this year to obtain a sound, fact-based assessment of the extent and sources of access delays across the government.

Where institutions are doing well, strong leadership overwhelmingly predicates success. These are institutions that have actively committed to transparency through the development and execution of comprehensive plans for their access programs, which typically take several years to fully realize their objectives. This is a realistic approach that requires focused and sustained support from the executive cadre.

However, these institutions represent the minority. Elsewhere, the continued denial of timely information to Canadians results from a number of factors. Insufficient resources, poor information management, misuse of time extensions, frequent and lengthy consultations, protracted review and approval processes, and inappropriate or ill-enforced delegation orders can delay the release of information for months on end.

Last fall, in response to the report from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics proposing legislative changes to the Access to Information Act, the government indicated that any legislative amendments must be examined in the context of administrative alternatives.

Accordingly, this report analyzes issues that have direct and significant impact on the ability of institutions to meet their statutory deadlines for responding to access requests. I have recommended various measures for the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat to implement as the policy centre for the administration of the Act. Some of these are new measures; others reiterate recommendations from last year’s report cards process. These are sound, straightforward and overdue measures that will improve accountability while ensuring that access to information does not fall victim to the next wave of budgetary restraints.

The status quo whereby citizens want information that the government wants to control no longer works. The technical arcana of bureaucracy are neither a reasonable explanation nor an excuse for increasingly lengthy delays. As the custodians of information that belongs to Canadians, Parliament, the Information Commissioner and government must work with all stakeholders to achieve dynamic solutions that embrace democracy through the free flow of information.

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