Mr. Chair and honourable members of the committee, I am pleased to appear before you this afternoon as you consider my office's budgetary submission for the 2015-16 main estimates. I thank the committee for inviting me.
Accompanying me are Lyne Robinson-Dalpé, Director of Advisory and Compliance; and Denise Benoit, Director of Corporate Management.
I was appointed commissioner in July 2007 with a mandate to apply the Conflict of Interest Act for public office holders and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons. These two regimes seek to prevent conflicts from arising between the public duties of elected and appointed officials on the one hand and private interests on the other. The act applies to over 2,400 public office holders and the members' code applies to all 308 elected members of Parliament. Ministers and parliamentary secretaries are subject to both regimes.
My office supports me in fulfilling my mandate. It includes advising public office holders and members on how to comply with the act and the members' code, receiving and reviewing their confidential disclosures, maintaining confidential files on these disclosures, making some information public in the public registry that my office maintains for the act and for the members' code, administering an administrative monetary penalty regime under the act, and investigating alleged contraventions of the two regimes.
In its first five years, my office maintained an operating budget of $7.1 million. I felt this amount would be sufficient once my office was fully operational. We have had surpluses each year that can be attributed to my reserve, vacant positions, and cost-saving practices. I reduced the non-salary portion of my operating budget by a total of 3% over the past two fiscal years. Although that reduction was partially offset by an increase in my salary envelope to cover economic increases, I was able to proactively offer an overall budget reduction of 1.4% in 2013-14 and again in 2014-15. Savings were achieved by centralizing some functions such as printing and procurement and by reducing the amount set aside as a reserve.
I've determined that I can accomplish my current mandate in 2015-16 with planned expenditures of $6.95 million for my office. This is up slightly from the $6.94 million approved in last year's main estimates because of a small adjustment to the employee benefit plans where contributions have increased from 16.5% to 16.8%, as determined by the Treasury Board.
I note, however, that any amendments resulting from the reviews of the act and the members' code could have resource implications for my office.
Finally, I expect that an adjustment to the salary envelope will become necessary next year to compensate for economic increases that have been absorbed by my budget over the last few years. I do not plan to request an increase in my overall budget but rather an adjustment between the salary and the non-salary envelopes.
Over the last eight years I have built a solid internal management framework. It's based on the principles of sound resource management followed in the public service, even though as an entity of Parliament my office is not subject to most Treasury Board policies and guidelines. This framework is supported by transparency. Annual financial statements, quarterly financial reports, and status reports on travel, conference, and hospitality expenses are posted on my office's website, and since 2010-11, our annual financial statements have been audited by an independent auditor.
My office uses external partners to provide expertise in the area of information technology and security, accounts payable and financial reporting, and compensation through shared services agreements. This provides greater efficiency and adds one more level of scrutiny in the management of resources.
Given the nature of my mandate, salaries represent our largest budgetary expenditure. Non-salary expenditures are mostly related to the cost of shared service agreements and the standard costs of running an office.
Measures implemented internally to reduce spending continue to produce expected results. My office continues to spend less than its allocated budget, in part because of these measures, but also because we have explored new management structures and have decided not to fill vacant positions immediately. I maintain a reserve to cover unexpected operational pressures such as an increase in investigation activities. I also use it to fund special projects and initiatives internally.
My primary goal as commissioner continues to be to help public office holders and members meet their obligations under the act and the members' code. The focus is reflected in the size of my office's advisory and compliance division, which is the largest of the five divisions and accounts for over a third of my staff.
Our advisers help members and public office holders to comply with the members' code and the act. This is done in part through formal mechanisms set out in the two regimes such as the initial compliance process, the annual review process, and the requirement to disclose material changes. Members are also required to disclose sponsored travel and gifts that have a value of $500 or more, and reporting public office holders are required to disclose gifts with a value of $200 or more.
In addition to these formal mechanisms, advisers provide information and confidential advice on an ongoing basis to individual members and public office holders and in some instances to their organizations as a whole.
In 2014-15 my office had over 4,000 communications with individuals who were subject to the act or the members' code. This volume is expected to increase this year as a result of the upcoming election.
While the major focus of my office is on prevention, I also investigate possible contraventions of the act and the members' code. In 2014-15 it was a typically busy year in terms of investigative activity. My office dealt with 45 investigation files including six that were opened during the previous fiscal year. Some of those files resulted from formal requests from members of the House of Commons or referrals from the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. Others were initiated by myself as a result of information that came to my attention in other ways such as media reports and communications from the general public.
We closed the majority of those files without proceeding to an examination under the act or an inquiry under the members' code or issuing a public report. Five files resulted in the release of public reports this year, all of them under the act. Eight investigation files were carried over into the current fiscal year, and we have since closed two of them.
Last month, after 12 months of work by my staff in collaboration with the House of Commons, my office launched a new public registry of public declarations. We previously maintained separate registries under the act and the members' code. The new registry combines the two making it possible for visitors to more quickly and easily access information. The registry's launch was the first component of a two-phase initiative. The second phase will give members and reporting public office holders access to a portal system that will enable them to file their public declarations electronically.
Four positions are currently vacant, and staffing processes are either under way or will be launched shortly for three of these four positions. While employee turnover remains low, I expect some departures in the coming year, including some as a result of planned retirements.
This concludes my opening statement. Again, I thank the committee for inviting me to discuss the budgetary requirements of my office. I will be pleased to answer your questions. Thank you.
Mr. Chair, thank you for inviting me to discuss the main estimates of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada.
The salary and operating budget for my office in 2015-16 is approximately $11.3 million, including employee benefit plans. I have 93 employees to assist me in carrying out my mandate.
As always, I dedicate as many resources as possible to the program while maintaining internal services functions at a sufficient level to ensure proper stewardship and governance of the office.
My office is a very lean organization. In addition, year after year my office receives unqualified opinions from the Office of the Auditor General of Canada.
In 2014-15, the office received 1,749 new complaints and we completed 1,605 investigations. Since 2012-13, we have seen an increase of about 10% in complaints overall, with a spike of 30% between 2012-13 and 2013-14. At the beginning of this year, our inventory of files is standing at 2,233.
During my last appearances before this committee, I raised concerns with my organization's budget and the risks the current funding level had on my ability to carry out my mandate and to face contingencies. I've also pursued all available channels within government to seek and obtain additional funding.
The most immediate impact of our financial situation has been longer wait times for complainants. There is currently an overall delay of about five months before a file gets assigned to an investigator. For the more serious complaints—the refusal complaints alone, which comprise about 87% of my inventory—the delay before I can assign a file is about seven months. This situation will continue and is only getting worse as no new source of funds was granted to my office through the most recent budget exercise.
However, I plan to continue to safeguard the right of access to the greatest extent possible under the circumstances.
To further enhance efficiency and bring discipline, predictability and clarity to the complaints handling process—internally and with institutions and complainants—my team and I continue to improve our investigative processes.
Together we are resolved to maintain the course of excellence we value and to uphold Canadians' information rights to the best of our ability and our capacity. Given the quasi-constitutional status of the right of access, Mr. Chair, anything less would be unacceptable.
With that, I'm prepared to answer your questions.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.
I am pleased to be here today to discuss main estimates and outline my priorities for the fiscal year. I am joined by René Leblanc, Deputy Commissioner and Chief Financial Officer.
My mandate is threefold: to maintain a registry of lobbyists; to develop and implement educational programs to foster awareness of the act; and to ensure compliance with the Lobbying Act and the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct.
As I have previously said before this committee, I run a lean but effective organization due to the progress made in streamlining operations. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of my staff who continue to perform despite scarce resources, last year I was able to deliver several new tools for lobbyists; improve compliance in the areas of monthly communication reports; and launch our segregated secure network to enhance data security.
In 2013-14, my budget was cut by 5%. I am currently able to deliver on my mandate; however, there are not sufficient funds to implement major system upgrades and policy and program changes, which might be required if the act were to be amended. The amount in the 2015-16 main estimates for my office is about $4.5 million, which is essentially the same amount as last year. My salary envelope represents about 63% of my budget. The remaining 37% is for operating costs. I have a complement of 28 employees.
The registry of lobbyists is the primary tool for lobbyists to disclose their lobbying activities. A budget of about $1 million, including salaries for seven full-time employees, has been allocated to manage the registry this year.
Following the budget reduction in 2013-14, the registry was placed in maintenance mode. However, given the importance of the system, this position is not sustainable in the long term. One of my priorities this year is to develop solutions to ensure the registry continues to be stable in the long run.
In terms of ensuring compliance with the act and the code, I allocated $1.1 million in 2015-16 to enforcement activities, including the salaries for eight full-time employees. In addition to conducting reviews and investigations, my office undertakes a broad range of monitoring and compliance verification activities. This year my priority will be to continue to refine these compliance initiatives.
The last component of my mandate is to inform and educate stakeholders. The Lobbying Act is a fairly complex piece of legislation. Outreach is thus essential to ensuring compliance. I allocated $700,000 to outreach activities, including salaries for seven full-time employees. While developing educational tools and delivering outreach activities will continue, my priority this year will be to support the implementation of a new lobbyists' code of conduct.
The purpose of the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct is to ensure that lobbying is conducted according to the highest ethical standards. While the act has been amended several times over the years, the code has not been amended since it came into effect in 1997.
In 2013, I held a consultation to determine whether revisions to the code were warranted. The consultation indicated that, while the code was working well, there were areas of the code that could be strengthened. As required by the act, I consulted stakeholders on a revised code in the fall of 2014. The act also requires that I submit the code to a committee of the House of Commons, which I recently did.
I look forward to hearing the views from members of this committee, as I see this as an important and final stage in the consultation outlined in the act. Following consideration of your views, I will develop the necessary tools and guidance documents for lobbyists. Finally, I will publish the code in the Canada Gazette. At that time, I will indicate the date when the new code will come into effect. Until that date, the 1997 code remains in force.
I would like to highlight three key changes to the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct, which I submitted to you.
First, the scope of the code has been changed to be consistent with that of the act. The main objective of the act is to ensure transparency of communication between lobbyists and federal public office holders. As a result, I have removed all rules in the code that dealt with the interactions between lobbyists and their clients.
Second, I added a new principle concerning respect for Canada's democratic institutions to reflect the role lobbyists play in the public policy process.
Finally, changes were made to clarify the area of conflict of interest. I simplified the rule dealing with conflict of interest to reflect the 2009 Federal Court of Appeal decision, which included the concept of apparent conflicts of interest. I also added new rules, which provide additional clarity to lobbyists in the areas of preferential access, political activities, and the provision of gifts.
Some relationships between lobbyists and public office holders could create a sense of obligation, for example, when the lobbyist has financial or business dealings with the public office holder or when they are close personal friends. In such cases where a relationship would be perceived as giving preferential access, lobbyists should not lobby that public office holder. Some political activities could also create a sense of obligation. While we live in a democratic country where both political activities and lobbying are legitimate, lobbyists must ensure that no real or apparent conflict of interest is created when these two activities intersect. The code will explicitly prohibit lobbyists from lobbying members of Parliament and ministers when they have carried out political activities that could reasonably be seen to create a sense of obligation. These activities include organizing a fundraising campaign or event, writing speeches, preparing candidates for debates, and serving on the executive of an electoral district association.
The rule extends to a prohibition on lobbying public office holders who work in ministers' or MPs' offices. When certain political activities are carried out by a lobbyist it is reasonable to think that political staffers who serve at the pleasure of a member or minister may also feel a sense of obligation. By contrast, activities such as donating as per the Canada Elections Act, putting a sign on a lawn, being a member of an electoral district association, or attending fundraising events do not create a sense of obligation that would result in the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The final rule concerning conflict of interest prohibits lobbyists from offering a gift to a public office holder except when such a gift would be a normal expression of courtesy or protocol.
I would like to end by stating that I am very proud of my staff and all of their work and support in achieving my mandate. Thanks to their dedication and professionalism, I am able to look forward to all that we will once again accomplish this coming year. In particular, with their help, I look forward to implementing a new lobbyists' code of conduct.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my remarks. I welcome any questions you or the members may have.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. Good afternoon, honourable members.
I am pleased to address our office's main estimates, and with me today are Daniel Nadeau, our chief financial officer; and Patricia Kosseim, our general counsel.
In my time, I will outline our fiscal outlook, describe how we are managing rising demands, and announce our new privacy priorities, which will influence our work in the future.
To begin now, in the coming years, our resources are forecasted to remain at their existing levels. When looking at our 2015-16 report on plans and priorities, there appears to be a drop from the last two fiscal years to this one. This difference is due mainly to the expenses incurred in previous years with the mandatory move of our headquarters in February 2014. Looking forward, for the next three fiscal years, our resources are set to remain relatively stable, at just more than $24 million annually.
That said, we face rising demands. Over the last few years, we have generally seen increasing levels of complaints, while our investigations are becoming more complex. On top of reviewing privacy impact assessments, we are also increasingly requested for consultations to provide advice earlier as new federal initiatives making use of personal information take shape.
Meanwhile, data breach reports from departments were already increasing before a new Treasury Board directive came into force a year ago, making material breach reports to us mandatory. And at the end of the last fiscal year, breach reports in the public sector hit a record high for the fifth consecutive year.
Facing rising demands, we have taken steps to continue meeting our obligations within our existing resources. For example, we are settling more complaints by early resolution, through which parties are satisfied without the need for a full investigation. We are also managing situations where many complaints come from various people about the same issue by opening one all-encompassing investigation. And, we have also implemented measures for situations where one individual submits many complaints, to better balance the needs of all complainants, ensuring all Canadians have access to our services.
All told, Mr. Chair and honourable members, we are using most, if not all, of the tools available under our acts to manage rising demands. But, today, we are left with precious little room to manoeuvre to meet our obligations. We are nearly one year in after taking on new responsibilities under Canada's anti-spam law.
We also anticipate the passing of Bill , which will make breach reports from private sector organizations to our office mandatory. Bill will also create new work for our office as we are called upon to investigate whether its implementation respects the Privacy Act.
So, while I am not ready to say our office needs new resources today, I think it will be quite difficult to meet our existing and new responsibilities with our current level of resources. After we have some experience fulfilling our new roles and a better sense of the impact on our resources, I may need to appear before you to make the case for an adjustment.
Turning to strategic priorities, when I appeared before you to discuss my nomination for the position of Privacy Commissioner of Canada, I said that during my mandate my goal would be to increase the control Canadians have over their personal information.
One of my first initiatives after assuming my role was to launch a priority-setting exercise that would guide the discretionary work my office does towards realizing this vision in the most efficient and effective way possible. As part of this exercise, our office engaged representatives from business, government, civil society, and academia. We also held focus groups to gauge the views of the public. Today, I am pleased to share our results.
To begin, one of our four privacy priorities will be the economics of personal information. Our discussions highlighted the need for user clarity about the personal information they provide in exchange for online services, how that data is used, and the question of meaningful consent. As a result, some of our key work under this priority will be closely examining the issue of consent in today's digital world, increasingly marked by the emergence of big data and the Internet of things.
The overall goal of this priority will be to enhance the privacy protection and trust of individuals so that they may confidently participate in an innovative digital economy.
The “body as information” will be another privacy priority. Whether it is biometric information tied to a trusted traveller card or that generated by medical devices, genetic testing, or wearable fitness trackers, this data may be used in many ways that could compromise people's privacy. This issue concerned the experts we engaged, and it is one about which we will learn more and raise awareness among both developers and users about the potential privacy risks of these new technologies.
The goal of this priority will be to promote respect for the privacy and integrity of the human body as the vessel of our most intimate personal information.
Of course, one of the hallmarks of today's information technology is sharing information with the world in a click, and as the saying goes, “the Net never forgets”, which means youth growing up today may no longer get to outlive their past mistakes. These are among the reasons why reputation and privacy will be one of our priorities, and one under which we will work to help enhance digital literacy among vulnerable populations, while also examining the right to be forgotten.
Our goal with this priority will be to help create an environment where individuals may use the Internet to explore their interests and develop as persons without fear that their digital trace will lead to unfair treatment.
Fourth and finally, government surveillance will also be among our priorities. As mentioned, we will be directing investigative resources to ensure the Privacy Act is duly respected by the information sharing made possible by Bill . We will also give advice to departments, through privacy impact assessments or otherwise, to prevent privacy breaches. We will also work with private organizations and government to establish appropriate standards for transparency in accountability reports.
Ultimately, our goal with this priority will be to contribute to the adoption and implementation of laws and other measures that demonstrably protect both national security and privacy.
In order to make progress on these priorities, we will focus our activities around five cross-cutting strategies: first, exploring innovative and technological ways to protect privacy; second, enhancing accountability and promoting good privacy governance; third, taking into consideration the fact that privacy knows no borders; fourth, enhancing our public education role; and fifth, paying special attention to vulnerable groups.
In closing, our new privacy priorities will help hone our focus to make best use of our limited resources, and further our ability to inform parliamentarians and to protect and promote Canadians' privacy rights. Having identified what we believe are the 21st century's most pressing privacy concerns, our office will now chart a course to address them, in partnership with individuals, organizations, legislators, and fellow oversight bodies.
With that, I look forward to your questions.