Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (Re), 2021 OIC 11
OIC file number: 5819-05410
Institution file number: N/A
In 2019–20, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) received 116,928 access requests, a 42-percent increase from the previous year. Almost all of these requests (98.9 percent) were for immigration application files.
Also in 2019–20, the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) registered 4,298 complaints against IRCC, 97 percent of which involved allegations that IRCC had failed to respond to access requests for immigration application files within the time limits set out in the Access to Information Act. In the two years prior to 2019–20, the OIC had registered only 226 and 558 complaints against IRCC, respectively.
To better understand and make recommendations to address the root cause of the dramatic increase in access requests and complaints, the Information Commissioner initiated a systemic investigation into IRCC’s processing of requests for immigration application files from April 1, 2017, to February 26, 2020.
The complaint is well founded, since the investigation found that IRCC’s practice of extending the time it had to respond to access requests from frequent requesters did not meet the requirements of paragraph 9(1)(a).
The Information Commissioner made five recommendations to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship:
Cease the practice of claiming time extensions under paragraph 9(1)(a) based on the number of requests submitted by any one requester
Develop a work plan showing the specific, measurable actions taken or to be taken to improve performance within the ATIP office
By the end of 2021, publish the concrete results and impacts of all specific, measurable actions stated in the work plan
Implement or augment plans and strategies to improve the availability of client immigration information to alleviate undue pressure on the access regime
Secure adequate short-term human and financial resources for its ATIP processes so it can meet its obligations under the Act, until permanent solutions to decrease the demands placed on its ATIP office are implemented
IRCC’s Deputy Minister submitted the institution’s work plan and management plan for addressing the recommendations to the Information Commissioner on April 15, 2021.
 IRCC interacts with millions of individuals every year, and some of its most important lines of business have seen significant increases in recent years. These increases correlate with large jumps in access requests to IRCC. In 2019–20, for example, IRCC received 116,928 requests, a 42-percent increase from the previous year. IRCC receives more requests than all other government institutions combined.
 Almost all (98.9 percent) of the requests are for immigration application files. Immigration lawyers and representatives submit the majority of these requests on behalf of and with the consent of their clients, foreign nationals who have applied to come to Canada, either temporarily or permanently.
 In 2019–20, the OIC registered 4,298 complaints against IRCC, 97 percent of which involved allegations that IRCC had failed to respond to access requests for immigration application files within the time limits set out in the Act. In the two previous years, the OIC registered only 226 and 558 complaints against IRCC, respectively.
 This report outlines the results of the systemic investigation I initiated into IRCC’s processing of access requests for immigration application files from April 1, 2017, to February 26, 2020, to better understand and make recommendations to address the root cause of these dramatic increases in access requests and complaints.
 The OIC examined IRCC’s processing of access requests for immigration application files, including the timeliness of responses and the types of immigration application information IRCC typically releases and withholds. The OIC also questioned why there is such a high demand for access to immigration information when applicants can track the status of their application through the MyAccount portal accessible through Canada.ca.
 In addition, the OIC sought information from immigration professionals who are frequent requesters of their clients’ immigration files to understand their experience and concerns with the access process.
 The investigation identified a variety of issues that I address in five recommendations (see below).
 In particular, I concluded that the practice IRCC had developed of automatically extending the time it had to respond to access requests from frequent requesters—as part of its efforts to cope with the inordinately large number of requests it receives each year—did not meet the requirements of paragraph 9(1)(a) and should cease.
 In addition, the investigation identified significant strain on IRCC’s Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) office and its ability to keep up with the volume of access requests. IRCC explained the process improvements it had made up to that point and that it was developing other plans to cope with the demand. However, I am concerned that they will not be sufficient to achieve long-term sustainability, given the continuing upward trend in immigration applications IRCC reported during the investigation.
 The problem will only be compounded if IRCC does not quickly address the root cause of the increase in access requests—that is, the fact that immigration applicants and their representatives cannot easily obtain the information they seek, most notably the status of applications and the reasons for rejections, through other means.
 Moreover, until IRCC addresses the root cause of the increase in access requests, the resources devoted to the ATIP office will remain insufficient.
 On February 18, 2021, I issued my initial report to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship setting out my recommendations.
 The Minister responded to my initial report on March 22, 2021, committing to take the recommended measures. On April 15, 2021, I received a work plan and a management plan from IRCC’s Deputy Minister outlining the activities IRCC will pursue over the next two years to address my recommendations.
 The complaint is well founded.
Recommendation 1: Cease the practice of claiming time extensions under paragraph 9(1)(a) based on the number of requests submitted by any one requester
 In 2019–20, IRCC extended the time it had to respond to an access request 11,366 times, an increase of more than 300 percent from previous years. IRCC claimed the vast majority of the extensions under paragraph 9(1)(a).
 Paragraph 9(1)(a) allows institutions to extend the 30 days they have to respond to an access request when they can show the following:
- the request is for a large number of records or requires searching through a large number of records;
- meeting the 30-day deadline would unreasonably interfere with the institution’s operations; and
- the extension of time is for a reasonable period, given the circumstances.
 In Information Commissioner of Canada v. Minister of National Defence, 2015 FCA 56, the Federal Court of Appeal made it clear that failing to meet one or more of the conditions set out in paragraph 9(1)(a) renders extensions of time invalid. As a result, the 30‐day time limit to respond to the access request remains in effect. In addition, the Court found that institutions must make a serious effort to assess how long extensions need to be and ensure their calculations are sufficiently rigorous, logical and supportable. Further, the Court stated that extensions of time based on simple formulaic calculations would, on their face, “fall short” of demonstrating that a genuine attempt was made to assess their required length.
 Despite this guidance from the Court, IRCC developed the practice of first identifying the individuals who submitted the most access requests each year and then automatically extending the response time for any new requests they received from these requesters by 60 or 90 days.
 IRCC’s practice disregards the Federal Court of Appeal’s ruling and the wording of paragraph 9(1)(a): that the request (singular) is for a large number of records or necessitates a search through a large number of records; and that meeting the original time limit would unreasonably interfere with the operations of the government institution.
 In addition, subsection 4(2.1). This provision requires institutions to make every reasonable effort to assist requesters, respond to access requests accurately and completely, and provide timely access without regard to requesters’ identity. By extending the time it had to respond to some requesters, IRCC violated the requirement to refrain from taking requesters’ identity into account when processing requests.
 In light of the above, I conclude that the Act does not permit IRCC’s practice of extending the time it has to respond to access requests from individuals who submit multiple requests.
Minister’s response to Recommendation 1
 The Minister confirmed that on March 1, 2021, IRCC had stopped claiming extensions of time under paragraph 9(1)(a) when the same individual submits multiple requests.
Recommendation 2: Develop a work plan showing the specific, measurable actions taken or to be taken to improve performance within the ATIP office, including:
- whether IRCC has implemented any further blitzes, under what circumstances, and with what results;
- details on the implementation of robotic process automation into the administrative processes within the ATIP office;
- details regarding other potential improvements to IRCC’s processing workflow, including increased interoperability between the case management system and the access redaction software;
- review of the online request form, including consideration of potential solutions to allow requesters to further narrow the scope of their requests and reduce unnecessary processing of records within the client immigration file; and
- details on the various action plans and ATIP modernization plan, including specific initiatives, implementation timelines and predicted outcomes/gains for each proposed initiative.
Recommendation 3: By the end of 2021, publish the concrete results and impacts of all specific, measurable actions stated in its work plan
 During the investigation, IRCC explained the initiatives it is pursuing to refine its procedures and tools, with a view to reducing access request processing times and cope with its overwhelming workload.
 Blitzes: The ATIP office temporarily reallocates trained resources from one segment of the workflow to another. IRCC acknowledged that blitzes can lead to backlogs in other parts of the process and only uses them a last resort.
 Robotic process automation: IRCC is programming and testing “bots” for certain administrative functions. Using them for intake data entry may improve processing times by 5 to 7 minutes per access request, according to IRCC. This would represent significant time savings across the total number of requests IRCC receives in a given year.
 Online request form improvements: To reduce the number of incomplete requests (those missing information or containing incorrect or invalid information) and to simplify processing, IRCC introduced drop-down menus and additional menu options to its online form. IRCC told the OIC that this has reduced incomplete requests from 30 percent to 10–15 percent of total request volume and thus improved processing times. This is a good first step, but more could be done, including allowing requesters to indicate which information they wish to receive (e.g. eligibility information and officer’s notes), which would reduce the amount of time wasted processing unwanted records.
 Modernization activities: A 2018 internal audit revealed that IRCC needs a long-term strategic plan to improve how it manages access and privacy requests, both within the ATIP office and across the institution. The following year, IRCC created a taskforce to find out why the number of access requests was growing and identify practical ways to address the increase. The result is a plan to improve client services and consider best practices from other institutions, with the various initiatives being coordinated by the ATIP Modernization team, created in June 2020.
Minister’s response to recommendations 2 and 3
 The Minister acknowledged that strategies such as blitzes might have short-term benefits but could affect employee wellness and strain other request processing activities. IRCC is looking for more sustainable measures to support its efforts to improve performance and respect its obligations under the Act.
 The Minister agreed with my recommendation to develop a work plan showing specific, measurable outcomes on performance strategies and setting out other actions to improve performance within the ATIP office. These will include automating administrative functions, acquiring new and responsive software to increase processing efficiencies and interoperability, and further improving the online request form.
 The Minister committed to sharing the information with my office by the end of 2021 and including it in IRCC’s Access to Information Annual Report, which it will publish on its website.
Recommendation 4: Implement or augment plans and strategies to improve the availability of client immigration information so as to alleviate undue pressure on the access regime
 One of the questions my investigation sought to answer was why IRCC receives so many access requests when it offers other options for clients or their representatives to obtain information about the status of immigration applications.
 Frequent requesters claim that the information available to applicants or their representatives online, or otherwise communicated by IRCC officials, is not satisfactory. For example, the status bar in IRCC’s MyAccount portal does not indicate the status of IRCC’s processing of applications. Likewise, template letters to applicants or their representatives only state whether applications have been rejected or approved. These letters rarely provide sufficient detail to understand why an application was rejected.
 In contrast, frequent requesters told the OIC that they generally do obtain the information they want through access requests. This is consistent with the fact that the OIC receives very few complaints about IRCC withholding information in immigration application files using the exemptions in the Act.
 During the investigation, IRCC told the OIC about various actions it is taking to ensure clients can more easily obtain the information they seek.
 Digital platform modernization: Immigration clients and their representatives want clear and meaningful information regarding their applications, in real time, through intuitive services. IRCC acknowledged these “changing client expectations” and indicated that it will be modernizing its digital platform in the next two to three years, with the first of several products to be available in early 2021–22. This transformation includes improving the MyAccount portal, introducing push notifications and enhancing generic content on IRCC’s website.
 Refusal letters: IRCC said it expected to begin a comprehensive review of various refusal letters in the last quarter of 2020-21, with possible implementation of a new Temporary Resident Refusal letter in the first quarter of 2021–22. IRCC indicated that the letters would include more detail about why applications were refused, with the goal of reducing the need for clients to submit access requests to obtain this information. However, IRCC does not plan to include direct excerpts of the notes immigration officer make on cases, which clients frequently request to see.
 IRCC reported that it is continually improving the online availability of case status information and that client feedback surveys have been very positive.
 Other program area improvements: IRCC ATIP officials told the OIC that reviewing records for possible exemptions is the most labour-intense part of the access request process. However, to date, they have taken little action to address this problem. To assist with this and reduce processing time, IRCC should consider—particularly since frequent requesters are generally satisfied with the amount of information they receive in response to their access requests—“pre-ATIPing” immigration application files as they are created. This would involving adding fields to the files to indicate which content may be disclosed, which should not be disclosed and which requires review.
 Reviewing records or the application of exemptions could also become more efficient with improvements to information management at the program level. However, IRCC did not indicate that it has any initiatives under way in this regard.
Minister’s response to Recommendation 4
 The Minister agreed with my recommendation. He confirmed that IRCC is working to improve the availability of client immigration information through other means than access requests and find the root cause driving clients to submit requests.
- Digital platform modernization: IRCC is actively pursuing updates and improvements to its MyAccount functionality to allow for better communication of case status updates to clients. Rollout is expected in 2023–24.
- Refusal letters: In addition to increasing the amount of detail in refusal letters, IRCC is undertaking a comprehensive analysis in 2021 of the root cause driving access requests, with the possibility of exploring alternative means of providing clients with the information they seek.
- Other program area improvements: The Minister conceded that while the review of records for potential exemptions is exceedingly labour-intensive, “pre-ATIPing” immigration application files as they are created would cause a significant resource strain and be of limited effectiveness, since the vast majority of files are not requested via access requests. Furthermore, IRCC holds a significant amount of personal and sensitive information. The Minister maintained that releasing information without review could cause irrevocable harm to IRCC’s clients. As a result, the Minister is of the view that “pre-ATIPing” is not feasible.
Recommendation 5: Secure adequate short-term human and financial resources for its ATIP processes so it can meet its obligations under the Act, until permanent solutions to decrease the demands placed on its ATIP office are implemented
 Over the last three years, IRCC’s volume of access requests for immigration application files has substantially increased: from 62,928 in 2017–18 to 81,013 in 2018–19 and 115,558 in 2019–20.
 While that may be the case, IRCC explained that its ATIP workforce is able to produce more than other institutions with fewer resources. It also noted that it consistently reviews workforce levels and processes to meet client needs and provide quality service, and pointed to the various strategies it is implementing in the ATIP office to address increasing volumes.
Minister’s response to Recommendation 5
 The Minister agreed with this recommendation. IRCC is working to secure additional human and financial resources for the ATIP function in conjunction with its action plan, while implementing permanent technological solutions to meet its obligations under the Act.
 Finally, I note that in his response to my initial report, the Minister has requested for my support in advocating for improvements to the Act and broader access to information, but in a manner that balances the right of requesters to access information with the operational impact it has on institutions’ ability to efficiently respond to access requests. I can assure the Minister that I am keenly interested in the legislative review of the Act.
 The Minister also asked for my support in advocating that some practices of immigration consultants be investigated. Practices between immigration consultants and their clients are beyond my jurisdiction.
 Through this investigation, it became apparent that IRCC recognizes the magnitude of the challenges it faces with regard to processing access requests. It also became clear that the fact that immigration clients and their representatives cannot obtain sufficient information about immigration application files through other means than access to information is placing considerable strain on IRCC’s ATIP office and its ability to process requests within the time limits set out in the Act.
 At the time of the investigation, I concluded that the strategies IRCC had developed and implemented to date were insufficient to address the root cause of the increased volume of access requests. For example, while IRCC’s online portal did allow clients and their representatives to access some immigration information, it was clearly not enough, since so many individuals had turned to the access system in recent years. To see true progress in reducing the number of access requests it receives, IRCC would have to actively pursue others measures to share immigration application information with clients and their representatives.
 Certainly as an interim measure, IRCC would have to ensure it had sufficient resources for the ATIP function. Its ATIP office has a dedicated and knowledgeable workforce, who were very helpful during this investigation. Nevertheless, resorting to temporary measures such as blitzes, and extending the time to respond to access requests as a matter of course and in contravention of the Act, suggests the office needs both more people and better business tools.
 An open, transparent and client service-based approach to government recognizes that access requests complement, not replace, other mechanisms by which individuals can obtain government information effectively and easily.
 The work plan and management plan I received from IRCC in April 2021 show promise that IRCC is taking seriously its commitment not only to address my concerns about how it processes access requests but also to make more information available to immigration clients and their representatives through other means than access requests.
 Preparing the plans so promptly and setting out specific tasks and timelines for completing them show notable leadership and willingness to improve. However, the ultimate measure will be the results IRCC achieves, in terms of both access and client satisfaction.
 Canada’s ongoing economic prosperity and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will rely on increasing immigration levels. This suggests that the demand for access to immigration information will only continue to grow. IRCC must be ready.
 Given the importance of the matters this investigation covered, I will submit a special report to Parliament on it in the spring of 2021, as per subsection 39(1) of the Act.
Information Commissioner of Canada