Message from the Commissioner

Information Commissioner Suzanne LegaultI am pleased to submit to Parliament this special report, which includes report cards on the performance of eight institutions in responding to access to information requests in 2009–2010. One of my goals during my tenure as Information Commissioner of Canada is to improve the state of access to information and reverse the decline in timeliness and disclosure. Report cards have proven to be instruments of change in this regard, as demonstrated by the positive work initiated by institutions my office surveyed last year and the advances reported by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.

The 2009–2010 report cards follow the Three-Year Plan for Report Cards published in 2009. Under this plan, my office set out to take an in-depth look at delays in responding to access requests—to find the root causes and implement solutions to reverse the problem. We selected eight institutions that only became subject to the Access to Information Act in 2007 as a result of the Federal Accountability Act (FedAA)—namely five Crown corporations and three Agents of Parliament, including my office. Previous report cards were done on institutions that have been subject to the federal access law since its inception, close to 28 years ago.

The scheme put in place under the FedAA increased the number of institutions the Access to Information Act covers and, at the same time, introduced specific exemptions and exclusions that prevent the Act from being generally applied to all the records these institutions hold. Although some exemptions are warranted to protect certain information from disclosure under particular circumstances, the ones specific to new institutions constitute an additional layer of secrecy and complexity in the Act. The FedAA also failed to make all institutions that spend taxpayers’ money or perform public functions subject to the access legislation. This piecemeal approach is in stark contrast with the stated purpose of the Access to Information Act, which is to ensure universal access to records under the control of federal institutions, except in very limited circumstances, as well as the stated goal of the FedAA, which was to bring more transparency to government. Moreover, the FedAA-related limitations are among the amendments to the Act that, while seeming innocuous in isolation, are gradually and subtly eroding Canadians’ right to access government records.

It is within this context that my office undertook the 2009–2010 report cards. I am pleased that six of the eight institutions surveyed performed at a high level. Although this year’s cohort accounted for only a small portion of the access to information requests received across the government in 2009–2010 (less than 2 percent), their performance proves that compliance with the Act is possible when the right ingredients are in place. It starts with the right attitude toward openness, which is intrinsically linked to leadership at the highest institutional level, the right tools and sufficient resources, and continues with a sound approach to responding to access to information requests. This year’s optimal performers are beacons of excellence among the access to information community. With this report, I would like to recognize them and celebrate their accomplishments.

The picture is not perfect, however. Two institutions scored very low ratings: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation received an unsatisfactory grade, while the Canada Post Corporation’s performance was off the chart, with some of the longest delays my office has ever seen. Together, the two institutions were the subject of 10 percent of the complaints my office registered in 2009–2010. Apprehension on the part of these institutions to disclose information resulted in significant internal delays, protracted review and approval processes, and ultimately poor service to Canadians.

This report provides valuable information on how to improve the administration of the current access to information system to help ensure institutions are providing more timely and more complete responses to requesters. This is just one step in the overall improvement that access to information in Canada requires. As this report shows, federal institutions have acknowledged that more work is needed and they are taking steps in that direction. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat is addressing the systemic issues affecting access to information, in particular responding to recommendations my office has made in recent special reports. However, in light of changes introduced by the FedAA and the subtle erosion of Canadians’ rights to access information, I am more than ever convinced that the winning strategy to reverse the decline in timeliness and disclosure of information must include a modernization of the Act and its administration.