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ETHI Committee Report

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Government Response to the Fourth Report of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics

Access To Information Request For The Department Of Foreign Affairs And International Trade Internal Report Entitled “Afghanistan 2006: Good Governance, Democratic Development And Human Rights”

The Government welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Fourth Report of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics entitled Access to Information Request for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Internal Report Entitled “Afghanistan 2006: Good Governance, Democratic Development and Human Rights”.

The Government has taken note of the observations and recommendations in the Fourth Report and is pleased to inform the Committee that it has already taken steps with respect to the recommendations found therein.

The Government is deeply committed to increasing openness and transparency and to upholding the principles of the Access to Information Act. This is why the Government introduced the Federal Accountability Act, which made a number of changes to the Access to Information Act.  An important change was to expand the coverage of the Access to Information Act to all Agents of Parliament; all parent Crown corporations and their wholly-owned subsidiaries, five foundations and the Canadian Wheat Board.  Moreover, as designated minister for the purpose of section 70 of the Access to Information Act, the President of the Treasury Board is now required to collect annual statistics to assess the compliance of government institutions with the provisions of the Act and its Regulations.

Recommendation 1
That the government introduce a new access to information act, and consider in the development of reform legislation the content of this and other reports of this Committee.

With the Federal Accountability Act, the Government brought forward significant reforms to the Access to Information Act, which had not been comprehensively amended since its coming into force in 1983.  The Federal Accountability Act extends the Access to Information Act to Officers and Agents of Parliament (including the Information and Privacy Commissioners), parent Crown corporations and their wholly owned subsidiaries, several foundations, and the Canadian Wheat Board.  As a result, over 250 institutions are now covered by the Access to Information Act.  Significant additions include a new duty to assist requesters without regard to their identities and the obligation for heads of departments or ministries of state to publish an annual report of all expenses incurred by their offices and paid out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund.  Further, the time limit to make a written complaint to the Information Commissioner was clarified. 

The Government has moved forward as quickly as possible to implement the access reforms made through the Federal Accountability Act.  For example, all Crown corporations and their wholly-owned subsidiaries were covered by the Access to Information Act as of September 1, 2007.  Further, the Treasury Board Secretariat, which is responsible for the administrative aspects of the Access to Information Act, published in the Canada Gazette a new regulation on the format of records, which came into force last fall.  Additionally, the Secretariat has embarked on a renewal of the access to information policy, directives and guidelines.

In April 2006, the Government tabled the former Information Commissioner’s proposals for reform and a discussion paper outlining the main issues requiring further consideration before reforms can be drafted and introduced.  The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics has yet to consider these documents.  It is our hope that the Committee will review the issues raised in the discussion paper and hear from the stakeholders as soon as possible.

Furthermore, the current Information Commissioner has taken a consultative approach in evaluating the effectiveness of the current access regime.  The Commissioner’s Office held a round table with stakeholders in June 2008, to explore various proposals for both legislative and administrative reforms to the Act.  The Government feels that it is important to hear from all stakeholders before considering further reforms, and will consider the results of the round table.

Recommendation 2
That the Treasury Board Secretariat up-date the access to information policy and guidelines to better prevent the miscommunication between requesters and ATIP officers or departmental staff in the future.

 The Government is pleased to inform the Committee that the President of the Treasury Board, as designated Minister for the purpose of section 70 of the Access to Information Act, approved the revised Policy on Access to Information on April 1, 2008.

The revised policy is directed at the head of the institution who is accountable for the effective, well-coordinated management of the Access to Information Act and the Access to Information Regulations within his or her institution. The head is also responsible for ensuring compliance with the policy and reporting requirements related to the administration of the Access to Information Act, including annual reports to Parliament. Section 6.2.4 of the policy states that heads of institution or their delegates are responsible for:

Ensuring that every reasonable effort is made to help applicants receive complete, accurate and timely responses in the format requested, in accordance with the Regulations and without regard to the applicant’s identity.  This includes developing and implementing written procedures and practices that will effectively assist applicants.

In addition, the Treasury Board Secretariat is preparing guidance for government institutions  that will emphasize the importance of duty to assist found in subsection 4(2.1) of the Access to Information Act.  This policy instrument is expected to be finalized by April 1, 2009.  The Secretariat will also revise all of its existing guidelines by April 1, 2010. In the meantime, it will issue guidance on specific provisions of the Act that were amended or added by the Federal Accountability Act as they are completed.  These policy instruments will include additional guidance on communications with requesters.

Recommendation 3
That the government require that all ATIP coordinators have extensive training, including the Information Access and Protection of Privacy Certificate Program at the University of Alberta courses or compatible ATIP training program, and be certified pursuant to national standards and that all training programs be available in both official languages.

The Treasury Board Secretariat has developed a training program for the ATIP community, offering, on an ongoing basis and in both official languages, a series of thirteen sessions on specific topics throughout the year.

To better understand the challenges faced by the ATIP community and to assess its strengths and identify its needs, Treasury Board Secretariat recently completed a survey of the difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified personnel and establishing and maintaining job satisfaction. The conclusions drawn from the responses to the survey provided information that will be crucial in terms of improving the Secretariat’s training program and examining how to alleviate difficulties affecting the community. 

As a result, the Secretariat is renewing its curriculum and developing additional courses for the ATIP community.  TBS is also currently exploring options, including with the Canada School of the Public Service which is responsible for training in the Public Service, for the delivery of training programs. In addition, the Secretariat is exploring the possibility of certification or accreditation of all ATIP practitioners within the Government of Canada.

Recommendation 4
That the Treasury Board Secretariat develop new guidelines to aid officials in the implementation of the new duty to assist requesters under section 4(2.1) of the Access to Information Act.

As mentioned in the Government’s response to Recommendation 2, the Treasury Board Secretariat is presently developing appropriate policy direction on duty to assist, found in subsection 4(2.1) of the Access to Information Act

Consultations will take place with the Office of the Information Commissioner and the ATIP community.

Recommendation 5
That the Privy Council Office amend its document entitled “Accounting Officers: Guidance on Roles, Responsibilities and Appearances before Parliamentary Committees” and take other steps necessary to ensure that deputy ministers and other officials are always well prepared for appearances before parliamentary committee meetings, including bringing with them all relevant documents to which they might reasonably anticipate they might have to refer.

The government’s guidance for accounting officers entitled, Accounting Officers: Guidance on Roles, Responsibilities and Appearances Before Parliamentary Committees, states that “Accounting officers have a responsibility to be properly prepared for their appearances” and notes that this includes the responsibility to be properly briefed and able to give committees appropriate information on all matters within the ambit of section 16.4 of the Financial Administration Act.  It also specifies their responsibility to provide committees with any appropriate information that they are unable to provide at the time of their appearance as soon as practicable thereafter, in both official languages.  The government seeks on an ongoing basis to enhance the understanding that accounting officers have regarding their roles and responsibilities, including through the training that is available to them, and the Committee’s recommendations will be borne in mind in this context.  As the government guidance document also notes, effective preparation by accounting officers is also assisted when there is clarity with respect to the Committee’s intentions regarding the purpose and subject matter of the appearance, and hence committees and accounting officers should work together to achieve such clarity as needed prior to the appearance.