2011-2012 Message from the Commissioner
The year 2011–2012 yielded significant transformation in access to information internationally, at the federal level in Canada, and in the work of my office.
The number of countries adopting freedom of information legislation continued to grow, while still others incorporated the principles of open government into their governance structures. As technology and the economy bring together international communities, these advances will facilitate dialogue on issues of importance, such as the environment, health, security and free trade, and increase governments’ accountability to their citizens.
Following on persistent advocacy by all information commissioners across the country, Canada joined this international movement in 2011. The federal government, along with many provincial and municipal jurisdictions, embarked on a concerted effort towards open government and signed on to the Open Government Partnership. My colleagues and I hope that, over time, this initiative will foster the development of a culture of openness among government institutions.
This focus on open government came just as we witnessed, for the first time in 10 years, a reversal of the declining performance of federal institutions in their fulfillment of their obligations under the Access to Information Act. Although this improvement was only slight, and the access to information system remains fragile, it is nonetheless noteworthy. I attribute this improvement, which has been one of my main goals as Commissioner, to many factors, including the successful implementation of our report card recommendations, both by the Treasury Board Secretariat and by institutions, and the scrutiny of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information Privacy and Ethics, the media and Canadians. Most importantly, however, the enhanced performance is the direct outcome of willingness and commitment among those at the most senior institutional levels to actually achieve better results, and of the continued commitment of access professionals to respond to requesters.
As a result of this improved performance, and due to the ongoing efforts of my staff, the make-up of our complaints inventory has been changing in recent years, particularly the last, as I had anticipated. This means that our caseload is now almost exclusively composed of complex files. Three key categories of these necessitated specific action this year: cases dealing with national security, defence and international affairs (17 percent of the total at the start of the year), complaints against the Canada Revenue Agency (15 percent) and complaints against the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (20 percent). As this report shows, we developed or enhanced a number of strategies to effectively investigate these complaints. I also increased our legal capacity in support of our investigative function. Through these efforts, we completed close to 1,500 files.
Despite a number of positive developments in the year just past, 2012–2013 promises to present its fair share of challenges. The implications of the cost containment measures in the 2010 federal budget and the funding reductions announced in Budget 2012 have required me to do a complete review of my office’s corporate and investigative functions. As a result, my overall staff complement will have to be reduced by 11 percent by the end of 2013. The effect of funding reductions is also becoming evident across institutions, as they struggle to respond in a timely manner to our investigations. This will, without a doubt, have an impact on my ability to carry out my mandate.
In addition, while institutions have made progress meeting their obligations under the Act, much remains to be done to achieve a level of performance at least akin to past peaks, in terms of timeliness and disclosure. In light of limited resources and the increased complexity of the complaints we receive, the collaboration of institutions will be even more crucial to the successful operation of the oversight model set out in the Act.
As Canada marks the 30th anniversary of the Act, it is time for me to take stock, as my predecessors have done before me, of longstanding and unresolved shortcomings in the legislation from an oversight perspective, and to assess advances in access to information both nationally and internationally and their implications for the law. I will do this with a view to making recommendations to Parliament on how to better fulfill the commitment embedded in the Act to timely disclosure of information to requesters.
In light of all of this, my focus for 2012–2013 will remain on achieving my strategic goals of reversing the declining trend in timeliness and disclosure of government information, of delivering exemplary service to Canadians and of creating an exceptional workplace.
In closing, I would like to thank my team for their hard work, support and dedication over this past year. In particular, I would like to pay tribute to Andrea Neill, who was Assistant Information Commissioner from 2007 to 2012. Ms. Neill has been a devoted and loyal colleague, and an ardent defender of requesters’ rights throughout her career. She will be sorely missed, and we wish her all the best in her future endeavours.