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Message from the Commissioner

The Commissioner - Suzanne LegaultThere has long been an expression in the access to information world— paraphrased from our legal colleagues: access delayed is access denied.

As significant delays continued to plague the federal access to information system in recent years, I decided it was time to determine what were the root causes of those delays and offer, in a series of reports, recommendations for improvement to reduce Canadians’ wait times for responses to their requests.

Over three years, we looked in detail at the performance of more than 30 institutions in terms of the timeliness of their responses to access to information requests. This report, the last of three, contains the results of a re-assessment for 2010–2011 of 18 institutions that performed below average or worse in 2008–2009.

Overall, there are signs of improvement: 13 institutions improved their performance, while two remained at the same level and three fell to a lower grade. Using various indicators, we found that institutions are providing more timely responses to requesters. Our recommendation to 12 institutions to eliminate their backlog of long-standing requests has meant that many requesters have finally received a response after waiting for some time. Institutional leaders are providing resources for the access function and working to establish a climate of compliance.

Clearly, a number of institutions have made real efforts to enhance their service. Yet the system is still fragile. Recently announced budget cuts could have a detrimental impact on the fledgling improvements we have seen. There is also evidence of practices institutions are following that do not follow the letter or the spirit of the Access to Information Act.

With these concerns in mind, we have recommended to each of the 18 institutions that they report on their progress implementing our latest recommendations in their annual report to Parliament on access to information operations. Parliament can play a crucial oversight role for the access to information system, particularly as the government considers new ways to share information with the public.

My office will also monitor those reports, as well as the expanded access statistics the Treasury Board Secretariat began collecting this year. We will use this information, as well as our own complaints data, to conduct any necessary systemic investigations and determine which institutions will be the subject of future report cards. However, we are otherwise suspending the report card process until at least 2014 and instead dedicating all our investigative resources to pursuing individual complaints, in order to maximize disclosure of information.

Nearly 30 years ago, the Access to Information Act—the original open government instrument—was enshrined into law. As Canada enters into its fourth decade under its aegis, it is time to recommit to it.