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Executive summary

This report is the third in a series by the Office of the Information Commissioner looking into delays in responding to access to information requests by federal institutions and assessing their overall compliance with the Access to Information Act.

To assess the subject institutions, we developed in 2008–2009 three indicators of delay and then collected statistical and contextual information to form a complete picture of institutions’ operations. The 2010–2011 sample comprised the 18 at-risk and below-average performers from the 2008–2009 report card process. Out of these, 13 improved their performance, two received the same grade and three performed worse in 2010–2011.

We also developed detailed indicators to assess institutions’ timeliness in responding to requests, and found signs of improvement. This progress, in combination with effective oversight, ongoing and adequate resources for the access function, and leadership by ministers and senior officials, bodes well for more timely responses to access requests and greater compliance with the Act.

We were encouraged that seven institutions had deemed refusal rates (requests completed late as a proportion of overall caseload) of less than 10 percent in 2010–2011, compared to just one among this same group of institutions in 2008–2009. In addition, 10 institutions significantly reduced their backlog of long-standing requests, and a number completed requests received in 2010–2011 in times approaching 30 days or fewer. Finally, while institutions were still closing only half of overdue requests in the first 30 days after the due date in 2010–2011, there were nearly one quarter fewer late requests than in 2008–2009.

During the 2008–2009 report card exercise, we identified six systemic issues (leadership, delegation orders, time extensions, consultations, resources and information/records management) as sources of chronic delay. Many of our recommendations at that time focused on these themes. Generally speaking, the institutions that significantly improved their rating for 2010–2011 were those that implemented most of those recommendations.

The overall improvement in institutions’ performance against the measures of timeliness that we have been tracking over the past three years suggests that institutions are providing more timely service to requesters and that the report cards and the follow-up by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics have had a positive effect.

Nonetheless, we are concerned about the fragile health of the access system, particularly in light of recent budget cuts. Those reductions could jeopardize the gains institutions have made, especially if the number of requests continues to climb, as it has since 2004–2005.

Given the improved performance, however, we will suspend our report card exercise until at least 2014. We will dedicate all of our investigative resources to pursuing individual complaints, in order to maximize disclosure of information. In the meantime, we have recommended that institutions report to Parliament in their annual report on access to information operations on their progress implementing our recommendations, so federal institutions can be held to account for their access to information operations.