Remarks by the Information Commissioner of Canada

Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy And Ethics

Main Estimates: Vote 1 under the Offices of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Canada

Ottawa, ON
May 5, 2017

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Mr. Chair, thank you for the opportunity to discuss the Main Estimates of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada.

The Access to Information Act establishes the Office of the Information Commissioner as the first level of independent review of institutions’ handling of access to information requests.

I am required by law to investigate all complaints to my Office. These investigations are conducted in an efficient, fair and confidential manner.

My office receives two types of complaints. Administrative complaints relate to matters such as delays in responding to requests. Refusal complaints relate to matters such as the application of exemptions used to withhold information.

The fiscal year that just closed was one of significant activity for the Office of the Information Commissioner. On the investigation front, the main areas of focus were the implementation of a simplified investigation process for delay complaints, with supporting advisory notices; the roll-out of interest-based negotiation and mediation for investigations; and putting into operation the special allotment funding received as part of last year’s Supplementary Estimates B. I appeared before this committee in November on those supplementary estimates and would again like to thank this committee for supporting my request for additional funding.

This year, the overall Main Estimates for my office is $11.2 million, including employee benefit plans. The Main Estimates allotment for 2017–18 is in-line with amounts received in previous years.

Given the number of complaints we receive, this amount is not sufficient to carry out the mandate of the Office of the Information Commissioner and serve Canadians.

Let me elaborate.

The number of requests made under the Access to Information Act has been increasing every year, as have complaints to the Office of the Information Commissioner. In 2010-11, the government received approximately 41,600 requests. In 2015-16 year, it received approximately 75,400. This is an increase of 81 percent. For the last two years, the Office has received over 2,000 complaints per year.

In addition to the continuous rise in complaints, there are other factors and risks that must be taken into account when forecasting our workload for the upcoming year. These include an anticipated surge in complaints related to Phoenix pay issues and the declining performance of institutions.

The inventory of complaints remains an issue for the Office. This past year, with the addition of temporary funding, the Office resolved 2,245 complaints. However, the total number of open complaints at the close of 2016–17 still stands at 2,844 files. This number will undoubtedly grow under current resource levels.

Without additional funding, the Office of the Information Commissioner does not have the capacity to absorb the expected increase in complaints and related workload. This is especially problematic as I continue to see complaints that demonstrate a culture of delay across the system and exemptions applied in an over-broad manner.

I have put in place a plan to continue to safeguard the right of access under these circumstances, which is especially important given the Office of the Information Commissioner will soon be in a period of transition as my mandate comes to an end. This plan will ensure corporate stability and transfer of knowledge.

For the coming year, I have the following key priorities.

First, we will continue to capitalize on the momentum gained last year as part of our simplified investigation process and interest-based negotiation. We will also continue to review the inventory of complaints to develop strategies for grouping complaints by subject matter or institution to maximize efficiencies. For example, we began a strategy last year that deals with complaints against Canada Post.

Second, we will leverage IT tools to enhance efficiencies. Examples of these tools include an online complaint form, optical character recognition software to ease searching through voluminous records, and the use of dashboards for investigation and litigation files.

Third, we will continue to hold the government to account on its promise to be open by default and, particularly, to amend the Access to Information Act. I note that the government was recently elected to the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership. I am hopeful this will encourage it to lead by example and take bold action on openness and transparency, including transforming the out-dated Access to Information Act into an ideal law for other countries to follow.

Finally, I am in discussions with the government for another round of supplemental funding so that the successes gained in 2016–17 will not be lost in the year to come.

2017–18 is shaping up to be one of change and challenge. Additional funding is necessary so the Office can meet the challenges that are coming. However, if supplementary funding is not forthcoming, I know the Office of the Information Commissioner will do its best to provide exemplary service to Canadians under the current resourcing levels.

Mr. Chair, I am ready to answer your questions.