Update from the Information Commissioner

Appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI)

by Caroline Maynard, Information Commissioner of Canada

March 11, 2020
Ottawa, Ontario

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Thank you for inviting me here today.

I am pleased to be able to speak to you about my role and to meet many of you for the first time.

I have been the Information Commissioner of Canada since March 2018. With two years under my belt, I feel that I am in a good position to provide some perspective on my mandate, and offer you some insight as to what’s on the horizon. 

I expect your analysts have already provided you with an overview of the mandates of the Agents of Parliament relevant to your committee, so I’ll speak briefly on my mandate and my office, followed by my priorities. I will then touch on some of the changes that have been front and centre at the OIC as well, as some of the challenges we face as an organization.

At the outset, let me emphasize an important point, and a frequent source of confusion:  The overall administration of the Access to Information Act and the policy instruments and tools that support its administration, all fall under the authority of the Treasury Board Secretariat. This means TBS oversees the handling of access to information requests within federal institutions.

My role is to investigate complaints relating to those access requests, normally because the institution is late in responding or because requesters are not satisfied they have received all of the information they are entitled to.  While my office receives thousands of such complaints a year, I also have the power to initiate complaints myself. In addition, I can initiate or intervene in court proceedings when necessary. My office has done this on a number of occasions.

As an Agent of Parliament, I report annually on my activities and I can also issue special reports to Parliament in respect of important issues that fall within my powers and functions. 

My organization is made up of approximately 120 employees, with about 70 percent of them working on investigations. I am supported by three deputy commissioners, responsible for Investigations, Corporate Services, and Legal Service and Public Affairs.

My goal is to maximize compliance with the Act using the full range of tools, and powers at my disposal.

This role of my office is of critical importance because Canada’s freedom of information legislation gives Canadians the right to access information about their government—about the activities it undertakes, the decisions it makes, and the money it spends. The Supreme Court of Canada has called the right of access “quasi-constitutional.”

Canadians are submitting more and more requests because they want to know how decisions in government are made, and how the Government is using public funds. This knowledge promotes trust in our institutions and our leaders.  And, I can attest that the thirst for this knowledge will not be going away.

I would now like to speak to you briefly about my four priorities, which have been the focus of the first two years of my mandate. They formed the basis for my soon-to-be launched Strategic Plan, which will carry me through the rest of my seven-year term of office.

My first priority is to optimize openness and transparency within my own organization. One of the ways we have done this is by publishing guidance on our investigations, so that the complainants can understand how and why we reach certain conclusions. We now have a searchable database of decisions. Both the database and the guidance documents are available on our website. 

Another priority for me has been to foster collaboration with stakeholders. With complainants specifically, I have worked diligently on ensuring timely communications, gaining a better understanding their needs and what they are seeking, and ensuring better follow-up on their files.  We have made some progress, but we have a long way to go.

I also meet regularly with the federal access community.  These are the public servants who process requests within federal institutions subject to the Act.  I consult with them and encourage them to flag issues and present new ideas for innovation.

In addition, I meet regularly with the heads of institutions and their senior management teams.  I let them know what is working and what is not working in their approaches to managing access requests.

My third priority has been to implement recent changes to the Access to Information Act.  The Act came into force in 1983.  Amendments passed by Parliament last June included important changes.

These amendments gave me additional tools.  For example, I now have order-making powers. This means that I can order institutions to take specific actions, including disclosing more records, when I find that the complaint is well-founded.  I can publish these orders and my recommendations in a final report on my website. In fact, the first final report was published just last week.

Institutions can also now seek my permission to decline to respond to a request that is vexatious, made in bad faith, or otherwise an abuse of the right of access. As the bar for approving this type of application is high, I have granted it only once to date.

And last, but certainly not least, it has been my priority to tackle my office’s inventory of active complaints. The inventory has proven to be quite a challenge. Even though we are closing more files, and are reducing the inventory of old complaints, there has been a marked increase in new complaints.

By this time last year, we had received about 2200 complaints. This year so far, we have received 5900 new complaints.  Importantly, while we have closed more than double the number of files this year, our inventory keeps increasing exponentially.

This leads me to another significant challenge facing the OIC: Our funding. We are grateful for the 1.7 million dollars we received when the amendments to the Act came into force last June.  But every year for the last 4 years, the former commissioner and I have had to ask for more funding to deal with an ever increasing workload for our investigators. 

While temporary funding has been helpful, it has also resulted in staffing challenges for my office as we are not able to offer permanent jobs. We find that we invest resources into training new recruits and consultants, only to lose them to offers of more permanent positions elsewhere.  It makes planning difficult and sustaining any momentum impossible.

ATIP units within federal institutions are also faced with their own resource challenges. Staff turnover in this field is high.  It is a difficult sector in which to work.  They too need additional resources to deal with the ever-increasing number of requests and to be able to respond to my office.

So I stress that additional resources are required across the system if Canadians are to be well-served by their access to information regime.  And if the Government is serious about its commitment to transparency, as highlighted in ministerial mandate letters, the access to information system, which plays a key role in ensuring government transparency, must be supported and prioritized.

I want to assure you, however, that the employees at my office are dedicated and are doing amazing things despite limited resources and an ever-expanding workload. They believe in the work they do and I feel very supported.

This concludes my opening remarks.  I would like to leave you with the message that my door is always open to you and your staff.  I will be pleased to appear before you whenever I am called.  I am very open to meet and engage with you in an individual or group discussions. 

Access to information is a critical component of openness, transparency and government accountability. It promotes trust between our institutions and our citizens. 

With that, I am more than pleased to answer any questions you may have.

Thank you.

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