This is the seventh meeting of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), today we have before us the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada. We have the Information Commissioner, Mr. Robert Marleau; Andrea Neill, assistant commissioner, complaints resolution and compliance; and Suzanne Legault, assistant commissioner, policy, communications and operations.
Welcome to you all.
Colleagues, just to clarify how we might proceed here, as you know, the Information Commissioner was invited, along with the other commissioners, to come before us with regard to their annual report, and to brief us on matters of urgency for our attention. Last week, you also know, the commissioner tabled a report card on ten departments. The information has been circulated to you all, and we hope to be able to address both, but maybe concentrate first of all on the commission itself, the act, and some of the priorities. Then maybe we can get into the report more specifically.
I can also report to you that after discussion with other members, the commissioner has agreed to reappear before this committee next Monday to more fully receive our questions and concerns with regard to recommendations for improvement of the act pursuant to that report, and to consider other matters related to improving the whole regime of access to information.
So we do have some work we're going to proceed with here. I've asked the clerk to make inquiries of the availability of the , who is the minister responsible for the Access to Information Act. I've also asked Mr. Marleau to consider making recommendations to us on whether there may be two or three witnesses who may be helpful, people who are very much up to date on the current status of access legislation in other jurisdictions and assessment of the condition of our current act and our situation.
That said, we certainly appreciate the opportunity, Mr. Commissioner, to hear from you, as this committee has not, since 2006, had an opportunity to address specifically any of the concerns or recommendations from the commissioner's office due to other work. We make that commitment now and we welcome you here.
I understand you have opening comments, so why don't we proceed with that so we can get on with our work.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
I must say I'm delighted to be back among you today to tell you what my office has been working on and outline our priorities for what I believe is going to be a very busy and eventful year for all of us.
As you mentioned in your opening remarks, I'm accompanied today by Suzanne Legault and Andrea Neill.
These are exciting times for access to information. Two bills have been tabled in the House of Commons and there is a recommendation from this committee for the government to introduce a bill to modernize and strengthen the Access to Information Act by May 31 of this year.
These recent developments tell me that we have reached a pivotal moment in the access to information regime.
I believe the committee wanted to discuss the issue of resources as well as the measures I put in place to significantly reduce our backlog. I'll also outline some of the issues that I believe require the committee's attention in the coming months.
I've distributed two documents. One provides some background information on my office, and the other provides our recommendations on modernizing the act.
Last year one of our priorities was to begin a renewal process to improve the effectiveness of our service delivery. This year this work continued in full force and will remain a major priority for the office.
In 2007-08 we saw the number of complaints we received increase by 81%, and as a result, our backlog has continued to grow. In order to reduce this historical backlog and conduct more timely investigations, we've introduced some new initiatives to strengthen and streamline the complaint-handling process and better manage our workload. These include the creation of an intake and early resolution unit as a pilot project, and a new separate team that is focused on tackling all of our older cases. Our goal continues to be to eliminate or significantly reduce the current backlog by the end of next year. We'll also want to prevent the recurrence of such a backlog.
I'm happy to report that already we are seeing promising improvements in our complaint-handling process and response time, but I'll be in a better position to attest to this at the end of this fiscal year, as some of these measures have been put in place only in the last few months. We'll continue to test our new workload management model and make necessary adjustments to keep us on track.
Mr. Chairman, the last time I was here, I indicated that one of our priorities was to review our approach to the report cards to ensure that contextual elements that may affect the performance of selected institutions are taken into account.
This year, we have come up with a new process that allowed us to examine the performance of institutions and provide a broader picture of institutional compliance with the act.
As you mentioned, a few days ago I tabled my special report on the performance of federal institutions to Parliament. The results provide a grim picture of the federal government's access to information regime.
The most significant finding indicates that requesters are right to be frustrated by the system. The 30-day period has indeed become the exception rather than the norm, and quite frankly it is just not acceptable. The prevalence of extensions and consultation requests have significantly slowed down the treatment of requests, to the point that some institutions take an average of 120 days to respond to requesters. As I have publicly stated, these are systemic problems; it's not just a departmental performance issue.
I firmly believe that central agencies, such as the Treasury Board Secretariat, have to exercise leadership to provide federal government departments with the resources they need to fulfill their obligations under the act. I also fundamentally believe that Canada needs a better compliance model for access to information, with adequate performance incentives.
As this committee has stated on numerous occasions, the need to modernize the legislative framework is urgent. The round-table discussions held by the Office of the Information Commissioner on the reform of the Access to Information Act, last June, demonstrated that the modernization of the ATIA is a priority for all.
Mr. Chairman, the document I'm providing to the committee contains a series of recommendations on this matter. It is the result of my reflection over the past year. For instance, I recommend the review of the legislation by Parliament every five years, universal access, a greater coverage of the act, and measures to improve timeliness, strengthen the compliance model, and improve public education. Although I support the open government act, which was developed by my predecessor, the recommendations outlined in this document should be implemented without further delay.
Mr. Chairman, should this committee decide to pursue legislative reform, rest assured that I and my office will make it our first priority to assist you in your deliberations.
Another issue I would like to briefly touch on is inherent weaknesses that are significantly limiting my ability to carry out my mandate and my new responsibilities stemming from the Federal Accountability Act.
I will be appearing before the Advisory Panel on the Funding and Oversight of Officers of Parliament on March 12 to discuss our financial requirements.
In order to address the resource issue, my office undertook an A-base review to identify what our needs are and how to make efficiency improvements to our operations. The review revealed a lack of capacity of my office to support the role of ombudsman and officer of Parliament.
Basically we need to obtain additional funding in order for my office to establish realistic resource levels and service standards based on the size and complexity of my program. We need these resources so we can put a greater focus on accountability, effective governance and oversight, and improve service delivery. Otherwise, my ability to deliver on my legislative mandate as well as the integrity of my office's program could be put in jeopardy.
In closing, Mr. Chairman, a stronger regime requires more than modernizing the legislative framework and administrative processes. It requires the leadership necessary to effect the cultural change required to lift the fog over access to information and create a real climate of openness. Your leadership is also required, to see that legislative reform becomes a reality.
It was Alvin Toffler who wrote Future Shock in 1970. You may remember he coined the phrase “information overload”, and he wrote the following: “Knowledge is the most democratic source of power.” You have a unique opportunity to bring about measures to modernize the access to information regime and bring it into the 21st century.
As I said earlier, I think this is going to be an interesting year for access to information. As you can see, there's lots of work to be done. With the appropriate resources and leadership, I'm confident we can meet these challenges.
Thank you for your attention and I look forward to your questions.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Good afternoon, Mr. Marleau, Ms. Neil, and Ms. Legault.
We had an opportunity to get to know each other during your past life, Mr. Marleau. You did an excellent job, and people are still referring to your texts.
Mr. Marleau, when opposition members ask questions in the House of Commons about access to information of the Treasury Board President, he says that things could not be better. This afternoon, the picture does not look as clear and unblemished as the minister suggests. You have produced an excellent report, in which you make a number of recommendations. This all speaks to the high quality of your work. But this can all be done—and I am sure you know this as well—only if there is a political will to amend the act, to implement your recommendations and to earmark the human resources required to remove the dust from this old legislation. But we seem to be getting bogged down.
You and I both know that we have to use access to information regularly when we do not get information from the department. Access to information is our last resort. That leads us to ask certain questions. Does the government have the political will to change things? Have you cried for help? Have you told the minister that you were getting bogged down, that you did not have the human resources or the budget you need? I would also like to know whether there have been any increases since 2006. I'm sure there has been an increase in the number of requests.
I will have another question later on.
As a rough estimate, I think it's something that the public should probably know.
You may know that prior to being elected to Parliament last fall I was a lawyer in private practice for over twenty years, and I actually studied law with a fellow by the name of Professor Alasdair Roberts, who you're probably aware of and who is a recognized expert in the field of access to information. He's made a number of comments in the press. He's been quoted in a number of journals, both in The Toronto Star and in Lawyers Weekly, which is a journal that I read quite frequently as a lawyer. There are a number of interesting comments.
I'm referring to a Toronto Star article dated November 1, 2003, which quotes Professor Roberts, who was a professor at Queen's University, and he's now at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. It says:
||Canada's leading expert on access to information issues, Alasdair Roberts, says the system results in unequal treatment for suspect requesters. Media queries are sidelined while others move through unimpeded. Roberts' studies show journalists' requests take longer on average than other types of requests. “Everyone is entitled to equal protection and treatment under the law“, he says. “There is no provision in the law that says journalists and politicians get second class treatment.”
He then went on to refer to the CAIRS system that previously existed:
||CAIRS is a product of a political system in which centralized control is an obsession. The system, which has been around in a less sophisticated form for a decade, was upgraded by the Liberal government in 2001 to allow officials across government to review the inflow of requests to all major federal departments, says Roberts, who now teaches at Syracuse University....
Do you remember seeing that article, by any chance? I wonder if you could comment on what was going on in the system for access to information then and what the situation is today.
I can't remember for sure that I read the same article. I've read Professor Roberts' book and many of his commentaries about access to information. Since that article was published, my office did a systemic investigation—it ran from 2003 to 2005—on what became known as “amber lighting” media requests.
The Canadian Newspaper Association filed a complaint. My predecessor started a systemic complaint on it. We found there was amber lighting. We found that indeed the media was part of that amber lighting, but they weren't the worst. Parliamentarians and lawyers were slowed down even worse than the media was in the amber lighting, and we found it did slow the requests in some circumstances.
I came out not against profiling requests within a department, but certainly against it violating the timeliness of the act, and made three recommendations to Treasury Board, which we're about to follow up on.
So that's the amber lighting and how the media might be profiled. I have no problems with that, because if a department wants to get ready for its communications on a story that's going to break, so long as they do it within the 30 days by the statute or the 60-day extension, that's their decision from a management point of view. We can argue what the spin is—that's another story—but if the requester gets his information in a timely fashion, that's what is paramount to me.
As for the second component, since then as well, we haven't really found a major issue. I'm sorry, I'm using up your time, but there was a two-part question.
If you don't mind, I'll split my time with Ms. Martha Hall Findlay. I only have one question.
Monsieur Marleau, Madame Legault, it's good to see both of you here. Thank you for being here.
Monsieur Marleau, I'd like to recognize that you have lost a good friend in Monsieur Gilbert Parent, who you worked with in the past. Condolences to you as well. We commend you for being such a good worker with him over the years, for all of us.
Monsieur Marleau, I want to go very quickly to Mr. Reid's reports and recommendations, some of which have been crystallized into a private member's bill.
On the ten recommendations you put forward, are they the same as, different from...? Do they in fact provide you with the litmus test you need to provide greater teeth? I'm referring, for instance, to recommendation nine, where you actually talk about removing “for the purposes of access within 60 days for extension”. You're suggesting forfeiture of the fees charged. That doesn't sound like something that would give a whole lot of bite to what you're trying to accomplish.
I also recognize the “access to the court”. In your view, would that not provide a greater stampede to the courts, given the preponderance of cases?