Thank you kindly, Mr. Chair.
Good afternoon. Thank you for your invitation to appear in relation to your study on my annual reports for the years 2010-11 and 2011-12. These two years represent the first two years following my official nomination as Information Commissioner, on the heels of having served in the position for an interim year in 2009-10.
Preparing for this appearance caused me to reflect on the work the OIC team has accomplished in the last three years. It also caused me to review the conditions that existed at the time I took the helm of the office, conditions that have informed and guided my actions since then.
Let me review these briefly.
First, when I took over as interim commissioner in 2009, the OIC was literally crippled by an unprecedented inventory of old cases, dating as far back as 2002. The number in the inventory at the beginning of that year stood at over 2,500 cases. This is compounded by the fact that the OIC has received in the last four years an average of 1,600 additional cases a year. The average turnaround time for a case at that time was around 450 days.
Second, the Federal Accountability Act had recently come into effect. It brought 69 new institutions under the purview of the act, most notably, as you know, a number of crown corporations, along with new exclusions and exemptions, which added a new level of complexity.
Third, there had been a steady decline in two key performance measures in accessing federal government information. In terms of timeliness, only slightly more than half of all requests made to federal institutions were completed within 30 days. In terms of disclosure, less than one-fifth of all requests resulted in all information being disclosed.
Fourth, the open government movement was developing rapidly at the time, in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
And fifth, the office's corporate governance was in need of a serious makeover.
Given these challenges, I set out a clear direction in 2010-11 in the OIC Strategic Plan, which has three key result areas: exemplary service to Canadians, a leading access to information regime, and an exceptional workplace. The annual reports of 2010-11 and 2011-12, as well as the upcoming 2012-13 annual report, highlight our achievements in addressing these key result areas.
When I first took on the role of information commissioner, I made a commitment to maximize the effectiveness and timeliness of my office to meet the needs and expectations of Canadians. As the annual reports show, we have made great strides towards the achievement of this objective through sustained and ongoing efforts.
Let me give you some of the key numbers.
Our inventory now stands at—and allow me to do this—1,796 files. I know people tell me I'm not supposed to use exact numbers, but if you lived in my world, one less file is one more accomplishment. That amounts to a reduction of 28.5%.
We've had close to 7,300 complaints since April 2009, including some of our oldest and most complex cases that had accumulated in the office over the years.
Our average turnaround time is now 380 days, which is just slightly over 12 months. More importantly, if you take out the outlier, which is the old cases that we are continuing to close, our median turnaround time now stands at 215 days.
The one measure I'd like you to keep in mind for my next appearance on the main estimates is that our median turnaround time, once a case is actually assigned to an investigator, is now around 86 days. That means that when I have somebody to assign a case to, people can expect a result in 90 days. Unfortunately, I don't have sufficient people to assign all the cases to at this time.
One of the challenges we now face is the changing composition of our complaints. Our caseload is almost exclusively composed of complex refusal files. Really, about 88% of our files are now complex files, a large proportion of which deal with issues of national security and international affairs, complaints against the Canada Revenue Agency, and complaints against the CBC.
During the period of time under review, we dealt with some key investigations, such as the first referral to the Attorney General under section 67.1 and the special report dealing with interference in the processing of access requests.
During that time, we also had some key court decisions, such as the Bronskill decision, clarifying cases dealing with national security. There was also the Federal Court of Appeal's decision confirming the commissioner's authority to compel the production of documents under the control of the CBC. In addition, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision stating that ministers’ offices are not part of the government institutions for which they are responsible. These decisions are now being applied through our investigations, and our upcoming annual reports will shed light on their implications for requesters' rights.
On the key result area of a leading access to information regime, we have been active on several fronts. It is, of course, not a secret that I am a strong believer in the need for the Access to Information Act to be reformed. But the focus of our activities for the period under review was on the overall performance of the access regime and on open government.
During this period I completed the three-year plan on report cards, which specifically looked at timeliness. In the course of this project, we reviewed 32 institutions among those that receive the most requests.
We made a number of recommendations, both at the institutional level and at the Treasury Board Secretariat, the body responsible for the administration of the act. Most of these recommendations have been implemented and have achieved positive results, the most noteworthy being the collection of detailed statistics with a view to better diagnosing the problems in the system and the various modifications to Treasury Board policies dealing with delegation of authority in mandatory consultations.
The scrutiny of this committee over the years has also played an important role in prompting institutions on to better compliance with the act. I have asked institutions in the most recent report cards to report their progress in implementing our recommendations in their mandatory annual reporting to Parliament under the Access to Information Act. That request was granted by the Treasury Board Secretariat, which, to my knowledge, is going to require that institutions indicate their response to our recommendations in their reports to you.
It is my hope that this committee will review these reports and follow up on them as you see fit, to ensure ongoing scrutiny of the performance of institutions in meeting their access to information obligations under the act.
We also completed the investigation into the coordination of access to information request system, called CAIRS, where I recommended to the President of the Treasury Board that all federal institutions post the summaries of completed requests on their websites, and that a central search feature be enabled to allow the public to search the lists of requests.
Since January 2012, all federal institutions have to post this information on their website, and the government is planning to have searchable summaries by next year.
During the two years under review, I spent considerable effort on promoting the benefits of the open government movement—in speeches, before this committee in 2012, and through a joint resolution of all information and privacy commissioners in 2010, which called on all governments to embrace open government principles for greater transparency and accountability.
I was really happy to see that the government adopted an open government platform in the spring of 2011.
On behalf of all the information and privacy commissioners of Canada, I also sent a letter to the President of the Treasury Board last year to provide recommendations for the government's action plan for its work as a member of the open government partnership. The key recommendation, which was supported by all commissioners across the country, was to update the Access to Information Act.
In the fall of 2011, I hosted the 7th International Conference of Information Commissioners in collaboration with the Canadian Bar Association. This was the first time that the conference was held in Canada. This event brought together more than 250 participants, including 36 international, provincial and territorial commissioners. The conference culminated in the release of a joint resolution signed by commissioners of 23 countries, calling on governments to enshrine the right to information in national laws.
On the key result area of an exceptional workplace, we focused on developing an integrated human resources plan and modernizing the corporate governance of the office with the leading initiative of modernizing our IM/IT systems. This five-year strategy started in 2009 and is slated to finish in 2013-14. So far we are on time, on target and on budget.
This is but a snapshot of the work conducted at the OIC during the period of time under review today. As you can see by now, I'm actually very proud of everything we have accomplished. However, as you will see in my upcoming annual report for the year 2012-13, which will be published likely in June, much remains to be done, especially since the modest gains at the system level, which I reported upon in 2011-12, appear to have disappeared. After all, 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the coming into force of the Access to Information Act, the key driver of democracy, transparency, and accountability. Let's make sure that we actually have cause to celebrate.
You will find in the package that was distributed a number of documents that provide a lot of additional information on the work of the office. I hope these documents will actually be helpful in answering your questions this afternoon.
With that, Mr. Chair, I'm ready to answer your questions.