Climbing Mount Everest – Collaboration, communication and challenges in access

Remarks at the 2018 Access and Privacy Conference

by Caroline Maynard, Information Commissioner of Canada

June 26, 2018
Edmonton, Alberta

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Good morning,

I am pleased to be here in the beautiful province of Alberta. My husband studied law here and I managed to visit Edmonton a few times in the 1990s before we drove across Canada to settle in Ottawa and start a family. We’ve been married for 20 years and are the proud parents of three adolescent boys, who keep us busy. As you may imagine, outside of work, I am a cook and chauffeur but, first and foremost, I am a hockey mom.

I’m also pleased to have the opportunity to introduce myself and share my thoughts on access with you today. I would like to thank Wayne McDonald for the kind invitation to speak at this conference.

I’m quite new to the position of Information Commissioner of Canada. I was appointed only four months ago on March 1st, 2018 for a seven-year term.

I applied for the position because of my experience with access to information, and my background in complaints and investigations –the job sounded like a good fit for me and I guess the government agreed.

By way of background, I received a Bachelor of Laws from the Université de Sherbrooke in 1994 and briefly practiced law in the private sector. I then moved into a legal career with the Government of Canada, working in arms-length bodies responsible for conducting independent review of grievances submitted by members of the RCMP and the Canadian Armed Forces.

My daily work in these agencies provided me with insight into how to respond to the needs of individuals while ensuring thorough, efficient and impartial review. As a legal counsel and then Chairperson of an administrative-tribunal, I was often called to comment on or apply access or privacy laws.

Those who know me will tell you that I value integrity, excellence and fairness. These bedrock values have become increasingly important as I progressed in my career and they will be at the core of everything I do in my new role.

My first four months as Information Commissioner have been very busy.

I am learning to get used to having my photograph taken more often. I’m also still getting used to seeing my name in the newspapers from time to time.

I have also figured out my daily commute across the river from Ottawa to my office in Gatineau, all while juggling our family adventures, including the fact that my eldest son was just  drafted into an American league and is considering moving to Alaska to play junior hockey.  From here in Alberta, Alaska may not seem too far – just a province and territory away, but for a mom in Ottawa it seems a world away.   

I can tell you that I take my role as Information Commissioner very seriously. As a people person, it was very important, early on, to get to know my team. I therefore made the decision to meet with each and every employee within my office during my first two weeks. I recognize that not every leader of a federal institution has the opportunity to get to know everyone in their organization on a personal basis, and I felt this was going to be key to building a trusting and bonded relationship. I quickly learned that I am very lucky to work with an incredible team at the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada. Their support, dedication and commitment is inspiring to me. I admire their expertise, and the versatility they demonstrate every day. As you can imagine, in a small organization such as my office, with only 93 full time staff, people are often expected to wear different hats at different times, and it is not at all uncommon to see supervisors rolling up their sleeves to get things done.

My experiences and observations over the last four months have also allowed me to confirm the four main priorities for the early part of my mandate.

My first priority is the most urgent one for our office. We have a backlog of approximately 3,500 complaints. This is a 23 percent increase from the previous year.

New complaints continue to grow. We registered nearly 2,600 new complaints last year. That’s 25 percent more than the previous year.

The Access to Information Act demands timely access to information. We need to do our best to deliver on this promise and resolve complaints as quickly as possible. Files that are five years old do not benefit anyone – in some cases requesters are not getting the information they want in the time they deserve while my investigators and federal institutions try to juggle older files and an increasing number of new ones with limited resources. This is why my first priority is to climb what I have called a Mount Everest of complaints, while continuing to investigate new ones as they arrive —as you can tell, I don’t tend to minimize or trivialize the scope of the challenge ahead!

Given our size, finding efficiencies in how we investigate complaints will be a key to success for my office. I am now working with staff to improve our investigation processes and increase efficiencies based on the recommendations I heard during my initial conversations with my staff.

In my previous job, I managed to significantly reduce the time it took to address military grievances and, with the help of my current team, I am sure that we can do the same for Canadians who have made a request under the Act and feel that they have been denied information they are entitled to.

My first step to address delays was to create a Triage Team. This team reviews new files as they arrive and speaks with complainants to verify expectations and timelines. This process has proven useful as it provides an early contact point and an opportunity to clarify the details of the request.

In addition to the Triage Team, I have also implemented a few simple changes that have already made our process and work more efficient. These changes include involving our legal team early on in the process, reducing the sizes of teams and moving towards a paperless environment.  I even ordered a second monitor for investigators which has increased processing speeds.  This is just the beginning as we haven’t reviewed the actual investigations process yet but, to date we have already closed 70 files more than last year at the same time and the changes have only been in place for one month.  This is very promising. 

I am also working with my directors to hire and train new investigators.  The 2018 Federal Budget included $2.9 million in funding for my office. Unfortunately, this funding is only for one year, so we have to fill vacant permanent positions and hire experienced consultants quickly so that we can resolve more complaints during the rest of this fiscal year.

My second priority is to prepare for the implementation of Bill C-58, which is the first bill to significantly amend and update the federal Access to Information Act since it first became law in 1983. 

My team and I are working on new processes to manage changes to the Act and guidance to explain how we will implement these changes.

There are two significant changes that will most likely affect our work at my office. 

The first change is the proposed section of the Bill that would allow federal institutions to refuse to process an access request when:

  • the requester has already been given access to an identical record;
  • the request is for a large number of records or requires a search through a large number of records; or
  • when the request is vexatious, made in bad faith or is an abuse of the right to access.

The caveat is that an institution cannot refuse to process a request without the Information Commissioner’s approval. Therefore, these files will need to be treated quickly by my office to ensure requesters’ right for timely access.

The second significant change is that the Bill would give me the ability to issue and publish orders, rather than be limited to issuing findings and recommendations as is the case now.  My team is looking into various tools to implement a searchable database on our website that will allow Canadians, institutions and stakeholders to eventually find the new orders, as well as any new findings and guidance.  This in my view will benefit everyone as it will provide clarity as to the office’s positions in particular cases and will result in more consistency across the government.

Bill C-58 is currently before the Senate, but we don’t anticipate it being passed by Parliament until at least the fall given the summer break.

This brings me to my third priority, which is to ensure that the day-to-day work of my office is open and transparent.

My goal with this priority is to make the complaint investigation process as simple and transparent as possible. I want to be clear on our interpretations of the Act and our process when conducting investigations so that Canadians and institutions can easily understand our position.

To do this, we will publish more guidance on our investigation process and the decisions we make. We will provide more timely updates on information affecting our office and the access regime. We will also communicate any new processes or expectations clearly to institutions and the public.

We will strive to post all guidance and updates to our website and social media. Work is currently under way to enhance and refresh these platforms.

My fourth and final priority is to work closely and collaboratively with institutions to help them meet their obligations under the Act and to address barriers in the system. With this in mind, I have been taking every opportunity to collaborate with government institutions, and meet with the leadership of those institutions. I also welcome any opportunities such as these here today, to meet with access to information and privacy professionals, as well as my provincial and territorial counterparts, and stakeholders.

With this in mind, on Wednesday, June 6th, I met with access to information and privacy coordinators in Ottawa. These are the leaders of the units within federal institutions that respond to access requests. After introducing myself and my priorities for the office, I shared the results of a survey sent to all 192 coordinators across the federal government. The goal of this survey was to understand the challenges their offices face and seek feedback on any improvements both the institutions and my office can make to improve access to information.

The results indicated that their biggest challenges are workload, followed closely by staffing, collaboration, training, and consultations with other federal institutions.

When asked how my office could help, the coordinators indicated that in-person meetings, and more collaboration, tools and resources, would improve the relationship between our offices.

The coordinators also identified a number of best practices that have been implemented to help them do their jobs. These included designating a person or team at their institution to work only on access complaints, using a tool to track access complaints and their status, decentralizing delegation orders and offering online learning tools.

My team and I will keep all the feedback we received from the coordinators in mind as we build our new investigation processes and guidelines.

In the spirit of further collaboration with institutions, I created a new award, aptly named the Information Commissioner’s Award, to recognize the exceptional efforts of a person and/or team in the federal access to information community.

A team in my office consisting of our directors of investigation, the Deputy Commissioner of Investigations and Governance, Layla Michaud who is here today, and myself chose the winners using four selection criteria:

  • Communication
  • Innovation
  • Leadership
  • Service

I presented the 2018 award during National Public Service Week celebrations last week to Marie-Claude Juneau, the access and privacy coordinator for the Canada Revenue Agency and to Dan Proulx, the access and privacy coordinator for the Canada Border Services Agency.

These two deserving individuals were selected for their ability to motivate and inspire their colleagues to respect the right of access to information. For me, teamwork and collaboration between institutions and my office is very important. I was honoured to recognize these two public servants who demonstrate all of these qualities, and hopefully, to hold them up as an example to their colleagues.  I understand that my role must be as someone who is both a cheerleader and one that must occasionally scold, but I can tell you that I very much look forward to encouraging success in a community that has to deal with many challenges, including a 215% increase in requests in the last 6 years. I do believe that we all have a role to play in ensuring government is open and transparent, and it is an attainable goal when we all work together.  

I plan on addressing all four of these priorities in the near term.

However, one overarching issue that has been an ongoing challenge for my office is resources.

As I mentioned earlier, we received $2.9 million in temporary funding to reduce the backlog of complaints. However, my office has not seen its permanent budget increase in six years even though the number of complaints keeps increasing. As you can imagine, it takes time to hire and train investigators, but without permanent funding we can’t hire permanent staff to build our internal capacity and ensure stability.

Ultimately, the goal is to ensure the Act is appropriately applied and to respond to complaints in a timely manner: I believe this is an achievable goal with sufficient funding, innovations and collaboration.

To conclude, it is a true honour for me to serve as Information Commissioner of Canada.

I recognize the trust that has been placed in me, and I will strive to promote transparency and openness at the federal level.

I also want to take a moment to thank the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension for their efforts to put on this important annual conference, and for the opportunity to attend.

The speakers and activities planned for today and tomorrow are extremely insightful. I look forward to participating and engaging with each of you.

Thank you.

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