Evidence of meeting #21 for Government Operations and Estimates in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was requests.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Caroline Maynard  Information Commissioner of Canada, Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada
Michael A. Dagg  As an Individual
Allan Cutler  President, Anti-Corruption and Accountability Canada
Sean Holman  Associate Professor of Journalism, Mount Royal University, Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group
Clerk of the Committee  Mr. Paul Cardegna

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Irek Kusmierczyk Liberal Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

I understand completely. I know, Commissioner, for example, that between February and May there were 31,000 online access to information requests. As you mentioned, about two-thirds of those went to IRCC. Do you have in your mind—

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

Mr. Kusmierczyk, I'm sorry, but we're out of time. For some reason, I couldn't get my mute button to unmute, so I should not complain about anybody else.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Irek Kusmierczyk Liberal Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

No problem. Thank you.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

I'm sure it would have been a great question.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Irek Kusmierczyk Liberal Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

It was earth-shattering.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

We're now going to Mr. Aboultaif, for four minutes.

Go ahead, please.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Ziad Aboultaif Conservative Edmonton Manning, AB

Thank you, Madam Maynard. It is wonderful to hear what you have to say. You mentioned a change of culture. I'm going to go back to that a bit. I guess my question is twofold.

The first thing is that you need more resources and you need more bodies, basically. You've requested that 20 to 25 people be added to your department. On the other side, we have technology and digitizing, which are supposed to help you to access information and get through it faster than you could if you had to search manually. How do you envision the structure of your department in the next little while to be able to achieve what you need to in order to satisfy all the ATIP requests as needed?

11:30 a.m.

Information Commissioner of Canada, Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada

Caroline Maynard

Speaking for my own institution, where we're dealing with complaints about access requests, I can say that we've been working really hard to have a better innovative system. We are now scanning every document so that every file we receive is accessible electronically. This is one of the reasons that my entire office, 110 people, is working from home remotely during COVID, and we haven't stopped working remotely since March 13.

We've been able to continue our work. Clearly, I'm in a very privileged situation because my office is small. I'm sure my colleagues who have thousands of employees have more challenges than I do.

As you say, we need to look at the management of information, where the information is stored, and, if it's stored electronically as I think Mr. McCauley said earlier, why it has to become paper to be back in the system for the access software. Let's give ATIP analysts software with which they can digitally transfer and access this information without having to resort to paper and scanning and photocopiers.

This seems to be an easy solution, but unfortunately, in the government these things take time.

There's also another issue we just became aware of during COVID. A lot of the software for access redaction is put on the secret servers of the institution because once in a while you have a document that is secret. Because it's on the secret server, it's completely inaccessible remotely. They should really remove that and put it on a protected server so it would be accessible remotely. The one in 100 files that are secret could have a separate system.

Those are the kinds of little things that have come up because we have had to work remotely. I'm hoping the institutions will react to that, because there are some solutions that are easy to implement.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

Ziad Aboultaif Conservative Edmonton Manning, AB

Thank you very much for the answer.

We are way behind with digitizing our system compared with what similar economies and countries similar to ours in size, population and so forth have done. A government is like a very large ship, and it's very hard to turn on an angle or change direction.

For you, the challenge is that you're trying to prepare the infrastructure by basically scanning everything and having everything accessible electronically so you can easily get to the information.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

Unfortunately, Mr. Aboultaif, we are completely out of time. I know there was probably a question in there someplace, but we didn't quite get it out in time.

We will move on to Mr. MacKinnon for four minutes.

Go ahead, please.

June 19th, 2020 / 11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Steven MacKinnon Liberal Gatineau, QC

Actually, I'm giving my time to Mr. Drouin, Mr. Chair.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

Mr. Drouin, go ahead for four minutes, please.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Francis Drouin Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Ms. Maynard, thank you very much for joining us today.

In answering a question, you said that the number of access to information requests had increased by 225% over the past six years.

Have you noticed the same trend with regard to complaints submitted to your office? Have they increased by 225%?

11:35 a.m.

Information Commissioner of Canada, Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada

Caroline Maynard

No. Only 1% of all annual requests are related to a complaint. The tangent is the same every year. We have seen an increase of about 25% annually, in addition to normal complaints. So the 1% becomes 1.25%, then 1.5%. It is a gradual increase. It is always going up.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Francis Drouin Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Okay.

Before I became a member, I was working in trade. Sometimes, different services would send me a note related to an access to information requests. I would be asked whether we could divulge certain information or not. I was personally dealing with other clients. So, it was not down to me to respond to them, but that was part of the emails.

Do you have advice from third parties? Do you think that those that deal with the government should have access to that information, which should be completely open and available to the public? Should we perhaps rather keep certain reserves in terms of what should be accessible to Canadians?

11:35 a.m.

Information Commissioner of Canada, Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada

Caroline Maynard

Consultations with third parties create tremendous delays, as do consultations among departments. There currently seems to be a trend toward adding a provision to contracts with third parties to specify that all information will be divulged or accessible. Of course, there are certain exceptions, including when information could cause irreparable harm to businesses, such as trade secrets.

There is still room for exceptions and exclusions, but we can limit them. The new legislative review will undoubtedly open the door to those types of recommendations.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Francis Drouin Liberal Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

In procurement, for example, talking to one department or another creates trade difficulties, as there could be divulgence to a competitor from the market where the client is trying to sell their product. Those issues are always there.

I think that I misunderstood one of your comments because of the interpretation. When it comes to the so-called secret documents, you talked about putting them on the Protected B server. Should secret documents be put on that server or only once they have been censored?

11:40 a.m.

Information Commissioner of Canada, Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada

Caroline Maynard

No, that's not what I was trying to say.

The access to information software that enables us to work on documents is often part of the secret network. Since it is on the secret network, people who work from home right now have no access to their main work tool. If the software was on the Protected B network, people could have access to the majority of their tools and documents from home.

That creates a new problem that we did not predict when we were working at the office. Working from home is one of the issues.

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

Thank you very much.

We will continue with Mr. Barsalou-Duval.

Mr. Barsalou-Duval, you have the floor for two minutes, please.

11:40 a.m.

Bloc

Xavier Barsalou-Duval Bloc Pierre-Boucher—Les Patriotes—Verchères, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Ms. Maynard, thank you for being with us today. We are very happy about it. Your presence was highly anticipated, and we would even like to hear from you more often.

I don't have a lot of time, but I have an important question for you.

This is my second term as a member of Parliament. I must tell you that I have had some rather painful experiences related to the Access to Information Act.

In terms of the requests I submitted during my first term, I would say that I obtained a response to about half of them. That was a few years ago, after all.

As for those I have submitted during my current term, I have received no response. The only times we obtain responses quickly is when the request is refused. In those cases, we obtain responses within 24 or 48 hours. We are told that the act does not allow that information to be provided. But when it isn't a refusal, it takes forever.

Are you worried by this long and cumbersome process?

Do you have statistics on the waiting time by department?

11:40 a.m.

Information Commissioner of Canada, Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada

Caroline Maynard

If you look at the annual report for each year, you will see that we have statistics for different departments. The delays are absolutely worrisome. As I was saying earlier, the number of complaints received last year relative to delays and extensions has increased tremendously.

I don't think people realize that an institution cannot decide not to respond. That is what we have been trying to show since the beginning of the pandemic. The act provides for a 30-day time frame. If people do not obtain a response during that time frame, the institution must advise them before the 30th day that it will request an extension. If people do not get that kind of a response from an institution, the institution is already not meeting its obligations under the act.

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Tom Lukiwski

Thank you very much.

Our final two-minute intervention will come from Mr. Green.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Matthew Green NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Thank you very much.

I think there are some pretty extensive expectations and standards that are rolled out in the “Open and Accountable Government” document, 2015, specifically annex C, which relates to “Access to Information and Administrative Matters”, Ms. Maynard. This states that “Ministers have direct administrative responsibilities flowing from their ministerial duties” on access to information.

Would you care to comment on whether our government is actively living up to this in relation to its culture?

11:40 a.m.

Information Commissioner of Canada, Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada

Caroline Maynard

It's difficult to tell. Every department is very different. I've been having great success collaborating with some leaders, and others less so. I find that the analysts, the coordinators, the people working in access believe in transparency and really want to provide information. The top leaders are often saying the right things too. I think there is an issue between the two. Middle management, I think, is often the one protecting the information or worried about the information coming out. There is also still a problem of fear of being embarrassed by the information, and embarrassment is not an exclusion under the act.

I think we need to really connect the two extremes and make sure that people know that it is fine, it is good to provide the information. This is how we get trust from Canadians that our decisions are being made properly, fiscally responsibly. Yes, we still have some issues in some departments, and some are better than others, that's for sure.

11:45 a.m.

NDP

Matthew Green NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

I really appreciate your candour and your openness to answer this stuff. I certainly look forward to having you back before this committee for future studies.