2009 September: OIC Management Response
Management response to the May 2009 Deloitte audit report on the Intake and Early Resolution Unit
Under its new risk-based audit plan, the Office of the Information Commissioner is focusing its audit work on gathering “just-in-time” feedback on new and maturing processes, to allow it to receive and respond quickly to independent, objective and evidence-based recommendations for improvement. The Office is placing particular emphasis on improving its service to Canadians, especially its investigations into federal institutions’ handling of access to information requests.
The first audit of this type was of the new Intake and Early Resolution Unit. The Office set this unit up as a pilot project in June 2008 to increase the efficiency of the front end of its investigation process, with the goal of resolving the greatest number of complaints as quickly as possible to better serve Canadians. Deloitte carried out the audit on behalf of the Office in the winter of 2009 and presented its final draft audit report in May 2009.
The following sets out the context for not only this audit but also the broader work the Office is doing to ensure Canadians are getting the information about their government to which they are entitled under the Access to Information Act. Appendix 1 contains the Office’s detailed action plan for responding to the specific recommendations set out in the draft audit report.
A new way of doing business
The Office is committed to investigating complaints in an objective and fair manner, and as efficiently as possible; however, it has faced considerable challenges carrying out its mandate in recent years. The environment in which the Office works has changed dramatically, driven mostly by technological developments. Moreover, due to many new institutions becoming subject to the Access to Information Act for the first time in 2007, the Office received an unprecedented number of new complaints in 2007–2008 and 2008–2009, adding to the workload associated with the backlog of long-standing complaints.
To meet these challenges, the Office proceeded in a bold new direction: carrying out a major realignment of operations and resources over the last two years to improve its core investigative function, to reduce and ultimately eliminate the historical backlog of complaints and to address other deficiencies noted by the Office of the Auditor General in its 2006–2007 audit report.
As a significant part of this new approach, the Office introduced a new business model to improve service delivery. Specifically, the Office designed the business model to meet three goals:
- to streamline the investigative process to increase efficiency and timeliness in order to eliminate the historical backlog and prevent it from recurring;
- to adopt a strategic and proactive approach to addressing systemic issues and non-compliance; and
- to use a spectrum of tools that support investigative and systemic actions to maximize compliance.
A streamlined investigations process. The Office undertook a critical exam of its key business processes and productivity levels based on case type and complexity, and did significant business re-engineering, to address case management issues that contributed to creating the historical backlog and to the growing inventory of more recent complaints. In particular, the Office set up a dedicated unit to investigate cases that dated from before April 1, 2008. The Office also designed a new three-step approach for investigating new complaints, centered on the new Intake and Early Resolution Unit, which was the subject of this audit (see below).
A strategic and proactive approach to systemic issues. Many compliance problems cannot be solved adequately when treated in isolation, independent of the larger issues affecting the access to information system. To uncover the root causes of these problems and, in turn, effect greater compliance across federal institutions, the Office approaches certain problems in a more strategic and proactive manner. By integrating key information, observations and conclusions drawn from its experience and that of stakeholders, the Office can suggest more effective solutions and achieve better results.
A spectrum of tools. Maximum compliance is sometimes best achieved through the use of a variety of tools that are interdependent and that also complement investigations and systemic actions. General application tools involve ongoing proactive efforts, directed at a broad range of stakeholders, to promote requesters’ rights and develop partnerships. The aim is clearly to prevent non-compliance and to facilitate compliance. In contrast, specific application tools are directed toward individual parties in specific circumstances that result in or could lead to non-compliance.
The Interim Information Commissioner and the Office have made it a priority for 2009–2010 to proceed with further implementation of and improvements to the business model. For example, a major project is under way to revamp the investigations application, which is expected to be operational in 2010–2011, will mirror the information requirements of the investigative process, thus making data entry, organization and retrieval, and consequently the whole process, more efficient. This year is also the first year of the Office’s three-year plan to monitor and follow up on the performance of institutions (report cards). The Office expects that it will take five years to fully implement the multi-faceted business model.
Intake and Early Resolution Unit
The Intake and Early Resolution Unit is a key component of the business model. The unit’s work comprises the front end of the process to receive, process and then investigate access complaints. The Office created the unit in June 2008, as a pilot project with the following goals:
- to enhance client-service focus;
- to improve response time for more straightforward complaints; and
- to maximize the use of investigative staff.
This unit follows a three-step approach to all new complaints:
The Intake group does the initial assessment and preparation of complaints to be investigated—reviewing the complaint itself, the original access request and gathering information from the complainant and the federal institution involved. The group then prioritizes cases that can be resolved quickly and easily, according to a set of criteria that include urgency, whether the complaint affects the public interest and complexity.
In addition to getting investigations moving more quickly, the work of the Intake group is intended to ensure that investigators do not spend time on administrative tasks, such as setting up files, delivering notices and gathering initial information. The Intake group has also been identifying administrative efficiencies in the processing of complaints, both for the Office and the institutions with which it works.
The Early Resolution group investigates cases that have been earmarked for early resolution. Through mediation and negotiation, it attempts to reach an early resolution of complaints to the satisfaction of the complainant and the institution. The intention here is to improve the response time for complaints that are not complex and for which solutions can be quickly found.
Cases that do not qualify for early resolution or that were not successfully resolved in that manner get passed on to the Complaints Resolution and Compliance team, which carries out the investigations based on the priority set by the Intake group.
Audit findings and management’s response
From the start of the audit, Deloitte recognized that the Office was committed to the success of the new Intake and Early Resolution Unit, which would, in turn, have a positive influence on the success of the new business model. In this vein, the auditor set out four expectations for what it would find in the course of the audit:
- timely process to allow early resolution to be attempted at the earliest opportunity;
- complaints prioritized, assigned and investigated on a priority basis;
- adequate volume of complaints being resolved; and
- reporting capacity and capability that informs management and provides reliable information for decision-making, including establishing service/performance standards.
In addition, senior management had the following expectations of the pilot project:
- improved ability to handle corporate information needs related to complaints; and
- information that would support the Office in informing both complainants and institutions that would increase efficiency in handling complaints and prevent future backlog.
Overall, as the audit report notes, there are a number of areas for improvement, which the Office agrees with and addresses in detail in the action plan contained in Appendix 1.
Meanwhile, recognizing that the unit is a key piece of the new business model, the Office has identified opportunities to improve it and, spurred on by the audit, has already implemented several measures, including the following:
- The Office set up a new unit to handle correspondence, which was a task originally assigned to the Intake group but was diverting staff from investigation-related activities.
- The Office established and communicated clear targets for investigators to meet in terms of the time they have to close various types of complaints and the number of complaints they are expected to close each year. In addition, managers closely monitor the progress of investigations each week.
- The Office established a senior-level committee with representatives from across the organization to identify and resolve more complex issues in our investigations, make decisions on next steps and follow-up to ensure those steps are taken in a timely manner.
- The Intake and Early Resolution Unit adopted a more vigorous and proactive approach, including an escalation process when required, to obtaining documents from institutions. For example, investigators met with representatives of several institutions that are the subject of a large number of complaints to explain the investigation process and the importance of receiving records quickly. These meetings led to the Office receiving needed records more quickly from these institutions than previously.
- To ensure better response times for straightforward complaints, the Intake and Early Resolution Unit developed a new triage system to simplify the assessment of priority files.
The unit is publishing, in conjunction with the action plan in Appendix 1, a practice direction on the Office website setting out the triage criteria and on requesting documents from institutions in order to begin investigations to give institutions and complainants’ insight into the Office’s approach. Other immediate improvements include various staffing actions and establishing realistic timeframes for the steps in the intake process.
Already, positive results of these efforts are beginning to show. For example, in the first five months of 2009–2010, the unit closed about 350 complaints. At this rate, the OIC will see approximately 16 percent increase in the number of closed complaints from last year. The average time from receiving a complaint to registering it in the database is currently 19 days, which is down about 13 percent from when the audit was done in the winter of 2009. Moreover, 60% of complaints are registered within 5 days and three-quarters within 10 days (For further details, see Appendix 1).
In 2009–2010, the Office is consolidating those gains by implementing the measures in the action plan. Therefore, we will ensure that the Early Intake and Resolution Unit is making a significant contribution to resolving even more complaints than in the past for the benefit of our clients.