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Privy Council Office

Led by the Clerk of the Privy Council, the Privy Council Office (PCO) facilitates the operations of Cabinet and the Government of Canada by implementing the Government's policy agenda and coordinating responses to issues facing the country. PCO also oversees the federal public service.

Assessment: B

(Received a D in 2008–2009)

  • PCO's performance in 2010–2011 was above average. Its deemed refusal rate was 6.1 percent and the number of complaints against PCO was 57, a 71-percent decrease from 2008–2009. PCO eliminated its backlog and achieved a commendable average completion time of 38 days for requests received and completed in 2010–2011. PCO significantly reduced the number of time extensions that it took in 2010–2011, and the number of related complaints also fell substantially.
  • PCO's improved performance is due, in part, to its concerted and successful effort to clear its backlog of long-standing requests and, consequently, concentrate on current ones.
  • PCO satisfactorily implemented four of the Office of the Information Commissioner's (OIC) six 2008–2009 recommendations. The OIC has issued four new recommendations to challenge PCO's access information office to further improve its compliance with the Access to Information Act (2010-2011 Recommendations), plus three recommendations for PCO's Cabinet Confidences Counsel. (2010-2011 Recommendations)
QUICK FACTS
2008–2009 2010–2011
Number of requests carried over from previous fiscal year 260 121
Number of new requests 650 647
Number of requests completed 674 673
Number of pages reviewed for requests completed 51,419 79,980
Deemed refusal rate 24%* 6.1%*
Average number of days to complete a request 157 132
Average number of days to complete a request received in 2010–2011 n/a 38
Number of consultation requests received 405 490
Percentage of required extension notices submitted to the OIC >85% <85%**
Number of complaints registered with the OIC 198 57
Number of complaints the OIC resolved 28+ 16+
Number of full-time equivalents in access to information operations, as of the end of the fiscal year 17.1 23.76
Follow-up on 2008–2009 recommendations

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

Delegation order......................................................... Disagreed

Backlog............................................................. Met expectations

Time extensions.............................................. Met expectations

Average completion time............................... Met expectations

Extension notices............................ Did not meet 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.)

** PCO submitted 57 percent of the required notices during 2010–2011, and later submitted the outstanding ones, after discussions with the OIC.

+  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 be different from what appeared in the 2008–2009 report card.

Report card

The Privy Council Office's (PCO) performance was above average in 2010–2011. Its deemed refusal rate was 6.1 percent and the number of complaints against PCO was 57, a 71-percent decrease from 2008–2009. PCO also decreased the average time to complete requests and eliminated its backlog of long-standing requests. Excluding the latter files from the calculations, PCO's average completion time for requests received and completed in 2010–2011 was a commendable 38 days.

PCO's improved performance is due, in part, to its concerted effort to eliminate its backlog and free up analysts' time to concentrate on current requests. The Access Director reported that the morale boost from a more current workload, coupled with new updated software has improved PCO's ability to retain staff members. This is important for PCO, given that the institution spends significant time and resources on staffing, having conducted about 100 staffing actions since 2007. PCO increased its employee complement from 17 full-time equivalents in 2008–2009 to 24 in 2010–2011.

Another possible factor in the improved response time by PCO may have been a practice PCO implemented to reduce the number of requests for documents that could contain Cabinet confidences. In 2010–2011, the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) found this practice to be inconsistent with the obligation to process requested records, and PCO discontinued it after investigation by the OIC. The OIC will continue to monitor PCO's performance now that this issue has been resolved.

In relation to consultations, PCO reports that it contacts other government institutions to get an estimate of the time required to respond to a consultation request, and has developed protocols with the most frequently consulted institutions. This is confirmed by the number of complaints the OIC has received about PCO's use of time extensions. In 2008–2009, the number of these complaints the OIC resolved was 18, but in 2010–2011 it was three. The OIC considers approaches such as the consultation management process described above to be a best practice. 

Although the number of administrative complaints has fallen, PCO currently ranks fifth of 84 institutions with complaints in the OIC's inventory. The resolution of complaints has, to date, required regular communication with senior officials of PCO. PCO and OIC need to pursue innovative ways to meet these challenges so that complaints can be investigated thoroughly and resolved efficiently.

Finally, PCO and the OIC continue to disagree about its delegation order, which accords limited authority to the Access Director to make decisions. The OIC is concerned that the director has been given responsibilities, such as responding to formal requests for representations from the OIC during the investigative process, without having the delegated authority for them. PCO disagrees with this interpretation of the delegation order.

Follow-up on the 2008–2009 recommendations

The OIC issued six recommendations to PCO 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 initial response and October 2010 progress report, go here.)

  1. PCO leadership has, as per the OIC's recommendation, supported continued process improvement related to the access to information function, which has paid off in terms of improved performance.
  2. PCO has not changed its delegation order in response to the OIC's recommendation that it remove non-access officials. In the OIC's experience, delegation orders that are not diffuse yield the best results. However, PCO access officials have said their delegation order does not cause delays in the access process, which seems to be borne out by the institution's performance in 2010–2011.
  3. PCO cleared its backlog, which has had a positive effect on morale and the ability of analysts to concentrate on their caseload of current requests.
  4. The number of complaints about PCO's use of time extensions has decreased each year since 2008–2009. In addition, PCO is now taking fewer lengthy extensions.
  5. PCO reduced its overall average completion time, even though it completed many long-standing requests in 2010–2011. Excluding those, the average time to complete a request is a commendable 38 days.
  6. 6. In 2010–2011, PCO did not meet the OIC's 85-percent standard for submitting the required notices of extensions taken for longer than 30 days but did later submit the outstanding notices, after discussions with the OIC. PCO asserts that its compliance with this requirement has been uniform.

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

This graph shows the sources of the Privy Council Office's workload for the three fiscal years starting in 2008–2009. Comparing 2008–2009 to 2010–2011, the institution saw a 4-percent decrease in its workload. This was accounted for by a 53-percent decrease in the number of requests carried over from the previous fiscal year, and a 21-percent increase in the number of consultation requests. The number of new access requests was nearly identical each year (650 in 2008–2009 and 647 in 2011–2011). The number of pages reviewed for requests completed increased 56 percent.

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 the Privy Council Office (PCO) completed within the timelines (30 days and extended) set out in the Access to Information Act rose from 90 percent to nearly 100 percent. The remaining requests were completed late: 50 requests in 2008–2009 and 1 in 2010–2011. PCO closed the latter within 61–90 days after the deadline.

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

Text Version

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

This graph shows the number and length of the time extensions the Privy Council Office (PCO) 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. PCO met the OIC's 85-percent standard for acceptable performance in this area in 2008–2009. In 2010–2011, PCO did not meet the standard but did later submit the outstanding notices, after discussions with the OIC.

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

Text Version

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 the Privy Council Office (PCO) in the three fiscal years starting in 2008–2009: complaints about deemed refusals (access to information requests that PCO delayed beyond the deadlines—30 days and extended—set out in the Access to Information Act) and complaints about PCO's use of the time extensions allowed under the Act. PCO continued to be the subject of almost no deemed refusal complaints in 2010–2011, while the number of time extension complaints dropped to almost none from more than 100 in 2008–2009.

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

Text Version

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

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 the Privy Council Office (PCO) in the three fiscal years starting in 2008–2009. Complaints in 2010–2011 were down significantly (71 percent) from the 2008–2009 level. The OIC is concerned that the number of refusal complaints is on the rise again, after a decline in 2009–2010. Half of the complaints against PCO in 2010–2011 were about exemptions.

 

Resolved*

Not substantiated

Discontinued

Pending

Total

2008–2009
Administrative 23 10 86 0 119
Refusals 4 11 20 8 43
Cabinet confidences 1 16 19 0 36
Total 28 37 125 8 198
2009–2010
Administrative 16 23 16 0 55
Refusals 6 8 2 8 24
Cabinet confidences 0 4 0 1 5
Total 22 35 18 9 84
2010–2011
Administrative 14 1 1 3 19
Refusals 2 2 3 27 34
Cabinet confidences 0 3 0 1 4
Total 16 6 4 31 57

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

2010–2011 recommendations

Given PCO's much improved performance in 2010–2011, the OIC is making recommendations to challenge PCO to further improve its compliance with the Access to Information Act.

1. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that the Clerk of the Privy Council continue to take a strong leadership role in establishing a culture of compliance throughout the Privy Council Office through respect for all elements of access to information legislation.

RESPONSE: The Clerk of the Privy Council remains committed to a leadership role in promoting compliance to access to information legislation. With his support and assistance, internal working ATI relationships have been streamlined, technology upgraded, and expectations within the department made clear, all directly linked to performance improvements noted in the Report Card. The Clerk has also personally maintained a dialogue with the Information Commissioner, to promote understanding and address OIC issues and concerns.

2. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that the Privy Council Office revise its delegation order so that the Access Director has decision-making power for all aspects of access to information legislative and administrative processes. In the absence of a change to the current delegation order, it is recommended that a person with delegated authority sign any formal representations made on behalf of the Privy Council Office to the Office of the Information Commissioner.

RESPONSE: PCO considers its delegation of authority to be a model of responsible decision-making and informed judgment. In accordance with the Financial Administration Act, it balances accountability and disclosure with the lawful protection of information. Under section 73 of the ATIA, it is the prerogative of the head of a government institution to designate who may exercise functions or powers of the ATIA within that institution. The Prime Minister has designated the Director, Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP), to perform the powers, functions, and administrative tasks pertaining to the ATIA. PCO Secretariats (i.e., records holders) are authorized to approve the application of exemptions or exclusions and the release of information to requesters. This shared Delegation of Authority is exercised diligently within PCO, and recorded formally at the appropriate stages in the process. This in turn provides appropriate authorization and support to the Director to represent PCO's collective interests on access matters.

3. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that the Privy Council Office report on its progress implementing these recommendations in its annual report to Parliament on access to information operations.

RESPONSE: The Privy Council Office will meet all reporting requirements mandated by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat in the production of its annual report to Parliament on the Access to Information Act

4. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that the Privy Council Office also include in its annual report to Parliament on access to information operations statistical data from the Cabinet Confidences Counsel group on the latter's responses to requests for certification of Cabinet confidences under section 69 of the Access to Information Act.

RESPONSE:PCO will consider including data related to the consultation process in its annual report to Parliament on the Access to Information Act

Privy Council Office—
Cabinet Confidences Counsel

Statistical review

Response time for the 1,233 consultation requests processed in 2010–2011, of the 1,321 received:

2010–2011

Fewer than
7 days
8–90 days 91–180 days More than
180 days
TotalPages reviewed

364 (30%)

515 (42%)

156 (13%)

198 (16%)

1,233

149,546

Comparison with the 1,549 consultation requests processed in 2008–2009, of the 1,701 received:

2008–2009

Fewer than
7 days
8–90 days 91–180 days More than
180 days
TotalPages reviewed

403 (26%)

870 (56%)

156 (10%)

120 (8%)

1,549

113,310

Assessment

While the OIC can appreciate all sides of the access to information process, the fact remains that the Cabinet confidences review process regularly leads to delay and that PCO-CCC must strive to find ways to facilitate a smoother process. Consulting institutions complain that their requests are returned for administrative details; however, PCO-CCC does not agree that this is the case.

The OIC agrees with PCO-CCC's observation that when processes are better understood and more rigorously applied there will be better clarity and more timely processing of Cabinet confidence consultations.

The OIC recommends that PCO-CCC, the Department of Justice Canada and the Treasury Board Secretariat  explore mutual training opportunities for the access to information community at large.

Report card

Privy Council Office–Cabinet Confidences Counsel (PCO-CCC) reviews records from all institutions to determine whether they contain information that must be excluded from disclosure under section 69 of the Access to Information Act.

In 2010–2011, PCO-CCC's number of incoming consultation requests decreased, but at the same time it experienced a 32-percent increase in the number of pages submitted for certification from the consulting institutions.

PCO-CCC is in a pivotal position with respect to the timely advancement of access to information requests for several large institutions, such as Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada and National Defence, so lengthy processing times have a significant ripple effect across the entire federal access to information system. The OIC is particularly concerned that consulting institutions may take longer extensions in order to protect their compliance rate due to the increasing completion times for their consultation requests.

PCO-CCC acknowledges that its review process can be lengthy for institutions that are waiting for responses, but explained that institutions' interrelated information and litigation issues can be complicating factors for efficient processing. Of concern to the OIC is the dearth of statistical data on the length of the consultation process and the seeming lack of software or another method for gathering information on PCO-CCC's performance in terms of responding to requests for certification of Cabinet confidences.

PCO-CCC's review of records is a rigorous process for which all the documents submitted for consideration must follow a particular format. First, the consulting institution must retrieve, assemble and pass the records through a preliminary review by its own legal counsel before forwarding them to PCO-CCC. A covering list of documents must be written in a particular format and accompany the records. This process appears to delay the timeliness of consultations by adding multiple players and increasing potential for the return of consultations for reasons of format and not substance.

PCO-CCC delivered several training sessions to institutions' legal counsel in 2010–2011 to impart a better sense of what acceptable submissions look like. From the OIC's discussions with officials at both PCO-CCC and consulting institutions, however, it may be that further training is required, accompanied by clarified and augmented instructions for preparing a submission package.

Follow-up on the 2008–2009 recommendations

The OIC issued three recommendations to PCO-CCC with
the 2008–2009 report card. The following summarizes the subsequent developments at the institution in response. (For the full text of the recommendations and the institution's initial response, go here.)

  1. The OIC recommended that the Clerk of the Privy Council take a leadership role to ensure that PCO-CCC responds to requests in a timely manner and report its results directly to Parliament. PCO-CCC noted that the Clerk is the general custodian of Cabinet documents and considers the reporting role to be a function of the PCO access to information office.
  2. The OIC also recommended that PCO-CCC strive to achieve a full complement of staff. PCO-CCC reported that recruitment is still proving to be a challenge. However, officials said that they are also looking to the Department of Justice Canada to perhaps send lawyers to PCO-CCC on secondment to get hands-on experience in this area.
  3. In response to the recommendation to review the Cabinet consultation process with the access to information community, PCO-CCC said that it had conducted training for legal counsel for institutions as a conduit for institutions to better appreciate why it adheres to the current process.

2010–2011 recommendations

Certification of Cabinet confidences is an important part of the access to information process. Consequently, the OIC is issuing three new recommendations to PCO-CCC to encourage improvements in performance.

1. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that the Privy Council Office–Cabinet Confidences Counsel explore with Treasury Board Secretariat new and more efficient processes for the Cabinet confidences review process.

RESPONSE: PCO is involved in discussions with the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) in relation to the consultation process for the application of section 69 of the ATIA and will explore, with TBS, processes and practices that can be developed to improve the timeliness in responding to consultation requests.

2. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that the Privy Council Office–Cabinet Confidences Counsel work with both the Department of Justice Canada and Treasury Board Secretariat to develop training to clarify the administrative aspects of the Cabinet confidence certification process to avoid delays that keep requesters waiting for their information.

RESPONSE: PCO and TBS have discussed and will discuss again the issue of training on Cabinet confidences. Training sessions will be developed in collaboration with TBS and the Department of Justice. In the meantime however, PCO re-emphasizes the need for departmental analysts and departmental legal counsel to refer to the Treasury Board Guidelines on the review of Cabinet confidences, which were approved by Ministers in 1993, and to the PCO Procedures of 2008 for the review of documents for the application of section 69. Those documents very well explain the principles and processes in relation to the application of section 69 and clearly indicate PCO requirements.

3. The Office of the Information Commissioner recommends that the Privy Council Office–Cabinet Confidences Counsel track its performance in terms of responding to requests for certification of Cabinet confidences under section 69 of the Access to Information Act, and contribute this statistical data to the Privy Council Office's annual report to Parliament on access to information operations.

RESPONSE: In recent years, PCO has developed various tools that allow it to keep detailed statistics of its operational activities in relation to section 69. The tools are updated and developed as necessary to achieve different purposes within parameters that remain reasonable, taking into account the roles and functions of the office. In fact, PCO devotes significant resources to that effect and always works diligently to the best of its capacities for producing required data in all instances where it is asked by the Information Commissioner Office to provide information with respect to the consultation process. PCO will consider contributing data related to the consultation process in its annual report to Parliament.