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Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) is responsible for Canada's foreign policy and all matters relating to Canada's external affairs. DFAIT's specific areas of responsibility include international peace and security, global trade and commerce, diplomatic and consular relations, administration of the foreign service and Canada's missions abroad, and development of international law and its application to Canada.

Assessment: D

(Received a "Red Alert" in 2008–2009)

  • DFAIT's access performance in 2010–2011 was such that the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) was able to rate it against its standard criteria, unlike in 2008–2009. A deemed refusal rate of 27.8 percent means that DFAIT receives a "D" grade for the year, but this rate reflects a more than 50-percent decrease from the high of 59.6 percent in 2008–2009.
  • DFAIT also improved its performance in a number of other regards, including nearly eliminating its backlog and receiving nearly 70 percent fewer complaints in 2010–2011 compared to 2008–2009.
  • DFAIT satisfactorily responded to all four of the OIC's 2008–2009 recommendations. However, DFAIT and the OIC are concerned about the stability of the resources for the access function. As a result, the OIC has issued two recommendations in this area, along with three others to prompt further improvements in performance (2010-2011 Recommendations).
QUICK FACTS
2008–2009 2010–2011
Number of requests carried over from previous fiscal year 459 389
Number of new requests 665 798
Number of requests completed 739 766
Number of pages reviewed for requests completed 34,311 204,175
Deemed refusal rate 59.6%* 27.8%*
Average number of days to complete a request 163 242
Average number of days to complete a request received in 2010–2011 n/a 94
Number of consultation requests received 1,039 1,049
Percentage of required extension notices submitted to the OIC >85% >85%
Number of complaints registered with the OIC 93 31
Number of complaints the OIC resolved 33** 7**
Number of full-time equivalents in access to information operations, as of the end of the fiscal year 24.9 27.68
Follow-up on 2008–2009 recommendations

Resources......................................................... Met expectations

Leadership........................................................ Met expectations

Consultations.................................................. Met expectations

Complaints....................................................... Met expectations

See report card text for details. For the full text of the recommendations, as well as the institution's initial response and October 2010 progress report, go here.

*   Percentage of carried over and new requests delayed beyond the deadlines (30 days and extended)) set out in the Access to Information Act. (See Appendix B for the formula the OIC used to calculate this rate.)

** A complaint is resolved when the OIC finds it has merit and the institution resolves it to the Commissioner's satisfaction. The number of complaints reported here is current as of November 2011. As a result, the figure for 2008–2009 may differ from what appeared in the 2008–2009 report card.

Report card

The access performance of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) in 2010–2011 was such that the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) was able to rate it against its standard criteria, unlike in 2008–2009. A deemed refusal rate of 27.8 percent means that DFAIT receives a "D" grade for the year, but this rate reflects a more than 50-percent decrease from the high of 59.6 percent in 2008–2009.

DFAIT also improved its performance in a number of other areas. It reduced its backlog of long-standing requests from 400 to 50, and expected to complete the remaining files in the fall of 2011. This increased the average completion time for requests to 242 days; however, if only the requests received and completed in 2010–2011 are considered, the figure is 94 days.

DFAIT reported having lowered the turnaround times for internal consultations with its consulates and other countries around the world from 120 days to 60 days by using secure email rather than diplomatic bags for hard copies of requests and records.

DFAIT also completed overdue requests more quickly after the deadline than it did in 2008–2009 (78 percent were completed within 60 days, compared to 62 percent in 2008–2009).

The OIC received only one third the amount of complaints against DFAIT in 2010–2011 as it did in 2008–2009. The nature of the complaints has changed as well. In 2010–2011, complaints were almost evenly split between administrative and refusal complaints, whereas in 2008–2009 they were overwhelmingly administrative. Also encouraging is the reported mutual sense of better collaboration between the OIC and DFAIT in resolving complaints.

All these improvements notwithstanding, the OIC is gravely concerned that chronic operating pressures continue to place DFAIT at serious risk of relapse into very poor performance.

The coordinator reported that one of DFAIT's most pressing issues is its inability to attract qualified and experienced employees. A recent staffing process took one year to complete and yielded only a handful of qualified candidates, several of whom then received counter offers from their home institutions. That left one candidate who was hired at the PM-04 level, but there are 10 more positions that DFAIT would like to fill. However, DFAIT has an internal career progression program that has yielded some success for retaining employees.

Access officials report that the staffing situation may jeopardize the $2.7 million in increased funding that was allotted to improve access performance in the wake of the 2008–2009 report card. DFAIT had provided the additional resources during a previous internal strategic review, when funding was being cut in many other areas of the institution. Now, with the entire federal government undergoing a review, the access coordinator fears that the office's inability to use the funding to acquire new staff may threaten it. DFAIT's assistant deputy minister responsible for access to information, however, told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in November 2010 that access funding would not be diminished.

Consultations from other government institutions continue to significantly outnumber requests. As a result, DFAIT is considering, based on a consultant's recommendation, directing consultations to other countries' embassies and consulates in Ottawa, rather than having to send records to international locations. To help achieve this, DFAIT has introduced a senior position in the access to information office into which foreign service personnel rotate. This function is also intended to provide a liaison for foreign service colleagues who are reported to have reservations about the access to information process, and may, as a result, be a source of delay.

DFAIT access officials delivered training to more than 1,300 institution staff during 2010–2011, yet they report a persistent lack of awareness about access to information processes. DFAIT has also implemented an intake team that identifies requests that can be easily processed, ensuring that all request elements are complete before assigning it to an analyst.

DFAIT took extensions for 31 percent of its new requests, and the OIC is concerned that the institution is taking them systematically to compensate for issues in its own access office, not for the reasons prescribed in the legislation. The average length of the extensions was 131 days. DFAIT reported that Day 20 in the response period is the decision date for requests to ensure that they do not go into deemed refusal. This suggests to the OIC a potentially inappropriate application of extensions.

The OIC is also concerned that it was unable to resolve an investigation into DFAIT's standard practice of charging fees on requests with more than 500 responsive pages. Over the course of the investigation, the OIC had recommended that DFAIT cease charging fees for search and preparation time of electronic records, and instead exercise discretion when levying them. The OIC's position is that DFAIT's practice is, among other things, contrary to duty to assist obligations and the spirit of the Act.

In 2008–2009, the OIC recommended that DFAIT stop counselling other institutions to close files with potential section 13 (information gained in confidence from a foreign state) or section 15 (international affairs and defence) exemptions. DFAIT reported that it has stopped the practice but emphasized that the onus to follow up on the file now rests with the consulting institution as a result. Given DFAIT's central role in the access to information regime as a whole and the impact of its performance on responding to consultation requests, the OIC's position is that DFAIT should closely monitor the progress of all incoming consultations.

Branch performance reports at executive level meetings are reported to facilitate generally better rates of retrieval and turnaround, as does the fact that access compliance rates factor into performance management agreements. DFAIT access officials could not confirm whether anyone has ever not qualified for bonus pay as a result of poor access-related performance.

Follow-up on the 2008–2009 recommendations

The OIC issued four recommendations to DFAIT with the 2008–2009 report card. The following summarizes the subsequent developments at the institution in response. (For the full text of the recommendations, the institution's response and October 2010 progress report, go here.)

  1. DFAIT senior management provided a much-needed infusion of resources to the access office in response to the OIC's 2008–2009 recommendation. However, DFAIT access officials report that this funding may be cut in light of DFAIT's inability to fill vacant positions. Consequently, the OIC has re-issued this recommendation.
  2. DFAIT leadership took corrective steps to improve the performance of its access to information office, including instituting monthly results reports at the executive level, allocating $2.7 million in permanent funding (at a time when the institution was under strategic review of resources) and incorporating access to information performance into executives' performance management agreements.
  3. DFAIT reported that it has stopped counselling other institutions to close files subject to consultations related to sections 13 and 15 of the Access to Information Act, in line with the OIC's recommendation.
  4. In the OIC's view, DFAIT has considerably improved how it works with the OIC to resolve complaints, as per the OIC's recommendation.

Access to information workload, 2008–2009 to 2010–2011

This graph shows the sources of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada's workload for the three fiscal years starting in 2008–2009. Comparing 2008–2009 to 2010–2011, the institution saw a 3-percent increase in its workload. However, the number of consultation requests it received in 2010–2011 once again eclipsed the number of new requests (by nearly one third). The number of pages reviewed for requests completed increased by nearly six times.

Access to information workload, 2008–2009 to 2010–2011

Text Version

How long it took to complete new requests, 2008–2009 and 2010–2011

Between 2008–2009 and 2010–2011, the proportion of new access requests Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) completed within the timelines (30 days and extended) set out in the Access to Information Act increased from 63 percent to 90 percent. The remaining requests were completed late: 163 requests in 2008–2009 and 46 in 2010–2011. DFAIT was able to complete half of its late requests within 30 days after the deadline in 2010–2011, up from 42 percent in 2009–2009.

How long it took to complete new requests, 2008–2009 and 2010–2011

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Number and length of time extensions taken, 2008–2009 and 2010–2011

This graph shows the number and length of the time extensions Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) reported to have taken in 2008–2009 and 2010–2011. The institution supplied this information in the notices it sent to the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) under subsection 9(2) of the Access to Information Act. DFAIT met the OIC's 85-percent standard for acceptable performance in this area in both 2008–2009 and 2010–2011.

Number and length of time extensions taken, 2008–2009 and 2010–2011

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Number and outcome of delay-related complaints, 2008–2009 to 2010–2011

These graphs show the number and outcome of two types of complaint registered against Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) in the three fiscal years starting in 2008–2009: complaints about deemed refusals (access to information requests that DFAIT delayed beyond the deadlines—30 days and extended—set out in the Access to Information Act) and complaints about DFAIT's use of the time extensions allowed under the Act. The decrease in both deemed refusal and time extension complaints from 2008–2009 to 2010–2011 (and particularly the drop in time extension complaints from 2009–2010) reflects the overall two-thirds decrease in complaints against DFAIT over the same period.

Number and outcome of delay-related complaints, 2008–2009 to 2010–2011

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Number and outcome of complaints received by the Office of the Information Commissioner, 2008–2009 to 2010–2011

This table sets out the number and outcome of the complaints the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) registered against Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) in the three fiscal years starting in 2008–2009. In 2010–2011, the OIC registered 69 percent and 79 percent fewer complaints against DFAIT than in 2008–2009 and 2009–2010, respectively. These decreases included large drops in the number of administrative complaints, among which are those regarding deemed refusals and time extensions.

 

Resolved*

Not substantiated

Discontinued

Pending

Total

2008–2009
Administrative 29 8 33 5 75
Refusals 4 3 3 7 17
Cabinet confidences 0 1 0 0 1
Total 33 12 36 12 93
2009–2010
Administrative 78 13 8 2 101
Refusals 1 3 15 15 34
Cabinet confidences 0 0 1 0 1
Total 79 16 24 17 136
2010–2011
Administrative 4 6 3** 1 14
Refusals 3 1 3** 10 17
Cabinet confidences 0 0 0 0 0
Total 7 7 4 11 31

* Resolved complaints are those that the OIC finds to have merit and that the institution resolves to the Commissioner's satisfaction.

** The OIC began using new disposition categories in 2010–2011. That year, there was one fees complaint and one refusal complaint in the new Settled category, which comprises complaints about minor errors, settled to the Commissioner's satisfaction without a finding. For reporting purposes, these complaints were placed in the Discontinued category.

2010–2011 recommendations

Given DFAIT's and the OIC's concerns about the resourcing situation at DFAIT, the OIC is re-issuing two recommendations in this area, along with additional ones to prompt further improvements in performance.

1. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that the Ministers and the Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada continue to demonstrate leadership by ensuring the proper level of management oversight of performance, both in the access office as well as in the program areas, in order to comply fully with the Access to Information Act.

RESPONSE: DFAIT will continue to share branch and bureau performance data on a regular basis with senior officials across the department. Access to Information Act performance issues are regularly signalled to senior managers in program areas in order to continually improve response and turnaround times.

2. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that the Ministers and the Deputy Ministers devote the necessary personnel and financial resources, both in the access office as well as in the program areas to be able to deal with new requests in order to comply fully with the Access to Information Act.

RESPONSE: DFAIT has devoted significant human and financial resources to the Access to Information and Privacy Protection division. Significant challenges exist with respect to staffing and DFAIT has completed an external hiring process and continues to attract participants in the ATIP professional development program, which trains and develops junior analysts to become senior analysts (i.e. PM-02-03-04).

Consideration of the necessary human and financial resources to ensure that program areas are sufficiently resourced to meet all of their responsibilities, including to comply with the Access to Information Act, is ongoing.

3. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that the Ministers and the Deputy Ministers devote the necessary personnel and financial resources, both in the access office as well as in the program areas to be able to deal with consultations from other government institutions in order to comply fully with the Access to Information Act.

RESPONSE: DFAIT has a dedicated team of analysts focused solely on consultations from other government institutions. DFAIT also devotes resources to train other government institutions on how to improve their decision making on files they will need to send for consultation so that they can be handled efficiently and expeditiously.

Consideration of the necessary human and financial resources to ensure that program areas are sufficiently resourced to meet all of their responsibilities, including to comply with the Access to Information Act, is ongoing.

4. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada continue to reduce its deemed refusal rate to zero.

RESPONSE: DFAIT will continue to work towards reducing its deemed refusal rate to zero. Substantial progress has been made in the current fiscal year.

5. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada report on its progress implementing these recommendations in its annual report to Parliament on access to information operations.

RESPONSE: DFAIT commits to reporting progress on implementing these recommendations as soon as possible.