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Introduction: Focusing on delay

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. (See the Three-Year Plan for Report Cards and Systemic Investigations for background on this project).

Our goal when we launched this three-year project was to identify the sources of the delay and to increase the compliance of institutions, in particular with the duty to assist, which was codified in the 2006 Federal Accountability Act. One of the key elements of the duty to assist is that institutions must make every effort to respond to requests for information in a timely and complete manner.

In 2008–2009, institutions responded to fewer than 60 percent of requests within the 30-day time frame envisioned by the drafters of the Access to Information Act. Our complaints investigations made it clear that some requesters were waiting much longer than that for a response.

But to offer solutions to improve the situation we needed to know more about the circumstances—both in particular institutions and across the system—that were leading to delays. In our view, effective oversight requires detailed analysis of quantitative and qualitative data, and evidence-based recommendations.

To that end, we developed a number of indicators of delay and then collected from a sample of institutions statistical and contextual information to form a complete picture of their operations, including workload, procedures, resources and other factors that influence how quickly they respond to requesters. We then assessed the institutions' performance and issued recommendations based on what we had learned from our information gathering, the results of our investigations and our knowledge of what makes a successful access to information operation.

Our 2008–2009 cohort comprised 24 institutions that accounted for 88 percent of all access requests across the federal government that year. We chose to focus on these institutions because we had received at least five delay-related complaints about them in 2008–2009. The group included some of the major players in the access system, including Citizenship and Immigration Canada (responsible for 41 percent of all access requests that year). This level of representation made for a solid baseline of data about the timeliness of responses.

Special Report "Out of time"

For 2009–2010, we targeted eight organizations that had been brought under the access legislation in 2007 by the Federal Accountability Act, to assess the experience of institutions newly subject to the law). We chose the five Crown corporations and three Agents of Parliament based on the number of complaints we had received about them since they had become subject to the Act in 2007.

Special Report "Open Outlook open Access"

In October 2010, we solicited a progress report from the 12 institutions that received the lowest grades in the 2008–2009 report cards on their work to implement our recommendations.

The 2010–2011 sample is made up of the 18 at-risk and below-average performers from 2008–2009. While this group accounted for only 34 percent of the requests received in 2010–2011, six of the top 10 request recipients are represented. In particular, key institutions, such as Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT), the Privy Council Office (PCO) and the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), are present. It was particularly important for us to re-visit these institutions, not only because of their poor performance in 2008–2009 but also because consultations with DFAIT and PCO are in many instances mandatory for other institutions. CRA, for its part, is the subject of by far the most complaints to us each year.

In this report, we re-visit these institutions to measure the progress they made implementing our recommendations, responding to access requests more quickly and generally improving their compliance with the Act. Individual report cards on these institutions begin here.

We also take the opportunity to review the results of our three-year plan, which we will be completing this year with a follow-up assessment of two institutions from our 2009–2010 cohort, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Canada Post Corporation ( Chapter 1 details what we found out, in terms of statistical evidence of delay, larger, system-wide issues that contribute to delay, and institutional compliance. Chapter 2 looks ahead to how we and other players can and should continue the oversight this project has shown to be so crucial, in particular to address concerns we have identified and monitor the fragile health of the access to information system.