Evidence of meeting #80 for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was office.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

4:30 p.m.

Layla Michaud

No. There are 1,900 complaints for the whole year.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lévis—Lotbinière, QC

Earlier you addressed the issue of the cost-benefit ratio. You mentioned an amount between $400 and $800, but your overall budget indicates that the number of complaints that you resolved last year was 2,200. We are closer to $5,000 per complaint, not $800.

4:35 p.m.

Layla Michaud

Yes, that's what I mentioned earlier, because I was talking about administrative cases where the amount is between $400 and $800 per complaint. However, we don't just handle administrative cases. The Canadian firearms registry cost much more than $8,000.

Determining an average depends on how the costs are established, for instance, by removing or allowing indirect costs. In any case, the average is about $4,000 per complaint.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lévis—Lotbinière, QC

Let's come back to the hourly rate.

Is it much more expensive to hire consultants for the short term, four months in this case, than to hire people full time at the office?

4:35 p.m.

Layla Michaud

Clearly this is the case, and it is why the office needs a stable and permanent budget that enables it to handle the quantity of complaints filed.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lévis—Lotbinière, QC

Where do you find consultants with the expertise needed to do this work?

Are they retirees who return to the labour market?

4:35 p.m.

Layla Michaud

That's the case for many of them. We hire people who have previously worked in access to information at the office or in the departments, and who are now retired. However, we also have people who are in no way retired and who work day-to-day as consultants in the field of access to information.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lévis—Lotbinière, QC

Could you give us an idea of what a person working full time might earn compared to a person hired as a consultant?

4:35 p.m.

Layla Michaud

Hiring a consultant for one year costs us about $180,000. It's market driven. However, the salary of an employee, for example a PM-4 or a PM-5, is about $85,000 a year.

In other words, we could have two employees instead of a single consultant, but because of the temporary nature of the funding, it is impossible to hire people permanently. So we have no choice but to hire consultants.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lévis—Lotbinière, QC

At the office, how many people work on complaint cases and how many work on the rest, in administration and things like that?

4:35 p.m.

Layla Michaud

Basically, 20% of our staff are dedicated to corporate services, and 80% take care of the program, which includes complaints, legal services, access to information and the rest. All of these people help to resolve complaints. As for the people who directly handle complaints, there are about 50.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lévis—Lotbinière, QC

Thank you.

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

Thank you.

The last question goes to Mr. Erskine-Smith.

4:35 p.m.

Liberal

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Liberal Beaches—East York, ON

I'll pass along to Mr. Baylis.

4:35 p.m.

Liberal

Frank Baylis Liberal Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

The number of complaints and access to information requests are on the rise. What steps are you taking to be more efficient?

4:35 p.m.

Layla Michaud

Since she has been at the Office of the Information Commissioner, Commissioner Legault has striven to make efficiency and performance a priority.

When I arrived at the Office of the Information Commissioner as the person responsible for corporate services, my mandate letter was very clear: I was to be sure to minimize the corporate services footprint and assign the maximum number of staff to the program.

To that end, we examined how we could work in partnership with other fellow officers of Parliament or other government entities. For example, contracts involving our financial system are now outsourced to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. I'm not talking about people who take care of our finances, but about our financial system.

We also work with our colleagues on security, since we must follow specific security rules. We work with our colleagues at Elections Canada, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

We have done a lot of work to reduce the time allocated to corporate services. We spend 20% of our time on these services, and when we compare ourselves to other organizations, we find we are very efficient.

4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Frank Baylis Liberal Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

On the question of actually, one after another, delivering per request, what are you doing to be more effective in that sense?

4:40 p.m.

Layla Michaud

In regard to the request to the complaint, what we're doing is.... Earlier I talked about the interest-based mediation and negotiation to really understand what the complainant is looking for, the type of information that he's looking for, for us to be more effective and in order to give the information to the complainant as quickly as possible and to reduce the burden on the department. It's something that we're working really hard on presently with departments.

We're also having numerous discussions with departments to increase the collaboration in order for them to really understand our process and give us what we are looking for as representation.

November 29th, 2017 / 4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Frank Baylis Liberal Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

When they had Bill C-58, one of the things—and I'm a layperson so I don't know much—that came up was that if the request had three parts, and this has been taken out, if they had the subject matter, the type of document, and the period of time, we were told that that would very much help the departments be more effective. We were told that by IRCC and border services who represent 60% of all requests, so more than 60% of all requests said, “Look, if you just give us this bit of information, we can be a lot more effective.”

The commissioner was dead set against that. It was felt that it was barring access to information, and it was actually taken out. But it seemed to me, at the time, that would have made you a lot more effective. It would be a lot easier to produce, and this was coming from the departments that actually have to do the work, saying that would make their work a lot more effective.

Given that didn't take place, what things can be done to make it more effective?

4:40 p.m.

Layla Michaud

As I said, we will continue to negotiate with departments, with complainants. Frankly, to have a discussion with complainants to really understand what they're looking for helps a lot. It's something that we will continue to do.

4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Frank Baylis Liberal Pierrefonds—Dollard, QC

Was there anything in Bill C-58 that will actually help? Was anything mandated—that part was taken out—that was put in there going to help you be more effective?

4:40 p.m.

Layla Michaud

I did not look at the last version of the bill as amended by this committee, but something that is going to help us is the publication of our decisions. I think that was added to the bill. The publication of our decisions will help the departments understand how we're dealing with our different investigations. It would become a kind of body of case law, which will be very useful. That's one aspect.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

Thank you, Ms. Michaud, from the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, for coming again today.

I've tried to spread out a little bit of the time we lost with the Special Olympics appearance in the House today and the motion. I'm spreading it over the two groups evenly.

Again, thank you for coming today, and thank you for your testimony.

We're going to temporarily suspend until we get the other commissioner set up.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

I will call the meeting back to order.

Once again, we welcome the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying to the committee. We're welcoming Ms. Karen E. Shepherd, Commissioner of Lobbying, along with Charles Dutrisac, acting director of internal services and chief financial officer.

You can open up with your statements now.

4:45 p.m.

Karen Shepherd Commissioner of Lobbying, Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying

Good afternoon, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.

I am pleased to be here today to discuss my request for additional funding that was included in supplementary estimates (B), tabled on October 26. I am joined by Charles Dutrisac, acting director of Internal Services, and chief financial officer.

As I have mentioned in previous appearances before this committee, I run a lean but effective organization. In past years, I was able to streamline operations without compromising the effectiveness of my office and my ability to deliver on my mandate.

However, I stressed last May, during my appearance on main estimates 2017-18, that while I am able to meet the demands of my mandate with current funding by making appropriate trade-offs, this may become more difficult to do in the near future. Over the years, there have been less discretionary funds available to deal with increased or unexpected pressures. For example, in 2016-17, the lapse was 3%, or $130,000.

I am faced today with an unexpected pressure in the form of a legal challenge. In May 2017, a legal challenge to my authority to open an investigation and to compel the attendance of witnesses was launched in the Federal Court. My office had to retain outside legal counsel in order to defend this challenge. It is imperative that the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying respond to the court challenge in order to defend the commissioner’s authorities derived from the Lobbying Act. It should also be noted that other federal legislation provides for powers similar to those being challenged in this court case.

Since 2008, my office has spent less than $5,000 per fiscal year on legal costs, other than the salary of the office's senior counsel. For 2017-18, as in previous years, I planned for potential legal costs and put money aside. In the course of the year, money in the legal reserve was reallocated to other projects. Once the court challenge in the Federal Court was confirmed last May, priority projects were placed on hold to ensure that my office would have sufficient financial resources to pay the legal costs. These include information management projects, as well as upgrading the website and the registry of lobbyists to meet the latest accessibility requirements and respect government standards.

I am asking the committee today to approve my request for additional funding of $400,000, as included in supplementary estimates (B). This request for additional funding is the first time that I have requested extra funds.

The court case presents an unprecedented resource demand on an organization that has about $300,000 discretionary funds each year.

The funding that is subject to approval today is to be allocated to legal costs in relation to this legal challenge. This special purpose allotment is to be applied this fiscal year and can be carried forward to the next fiscal year under the operating carry-forward provisions. I would like to stress that this funding is not being added to my budget of $4.4 million. These are funds that I can access, as required, to pay for legal costs, while allowing me to continue to deliver on my mandate. I would like to note that before making this request for additional funding, I undertook a strategic resource review. However, no significant potential for internal reallocation was identified.

The reason I have been able to run an efficient and effective organization is that I regularly hold priority-setting exercises with the management team to look at available resources and priorities and to reallocate funds when required.

In conclusion, if the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying does not have the financial capacity to meet the legal challenge in court, future enforcement of the Lobbying Act and of the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct is in jeopardy. If the case cannot proceed due to lack of resources, or is not properly defended and is lost, precedents for other legislation may be created.

This additional funding will supplement the resources required to defend the legal challenge in court and thereby ensure my ability to ensure compliance with the Lobbying Act and the Lobbyists' Code of Conduct. It will also ensure that my office can deliver on its day-to-day business, as described in the Departmental Plan 2017-18.

Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the opportunity to elaborate on the need for the funding requested in the supplementary estimates (B).

I welcome any questions you or the members may have to assist the committee in making this decision.