In June 2016 I had the honour to present the 2015 Annual Report of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, including a full array of statistics, to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Included in this report, as has been customary over the years, are tables showing compliance by provincial and municipal institutions with the time requirements of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (compliance statistics). The tables set out, for each institution, the number and per cent of FOI requests completed within the 30-day time limit mandated by these statutes, those completed within a permissible extended time, and those that went over time. Institutions report these statistics yearly to the IPC, through a dedicated web portal, and the IPC relies on the statistics reported to us in compiling the tables in the annual report.
After the release of the 2015 IPC annual report, I was informed by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change that there were concerns with the accuracy of the compliance statistics submitted by the ministry to my office.
In June of 2016, ministry senior management became aware of a practice in the ministry’s Corporate and FOI Services Office to change dates recorded in the request tracking system. This practice had the effect of misstating the ministry’s compliance statistics reported to the IPC. In response to this concern, the ministry’s Deputy Minister, Paul Evans, directed the Ontario Internal Audit Division of the Treasury Board Secretariat to audit the practices and procedures of the ministry’s FOI office.
On December 9, 2016, I received the full Freedom of Information Audit report, together with a summary of the revised FOI compliance statistics for 2010 to 2015.
Auditors have concluded that the dates in the ministry’s request tracking system were systematically adjusted by staff in the FOI office in order to show completion of requests within the 30-day requirement. In other words, dates were changed to improve the ministry’s compliance statistics.
The public’s right to access government-held information forms an important part of a democracy and reflects an open and transparent government. As such, Ontario’s provincial and municipal access laws place important responsibilities on freedom of information staff. Ontarians expect – and deserve−to know that these duties are being carried out in an open and ethical manner. The falsifying of statistics is a serious issue, and can erode the trust and confidence of Ontarians who should be able to rely on the accuracy of these statistics.
The ministry has provided to my office revised 30-day compliance statistics for the years 2010 to 2015. The revised statistics are based on estimates, not a review of every file. Through their examination of the electronic tracking system, the auditors have arrived at an informed estimate of the volume of changes made to the statistics.
Although I remain deeply concerned about the circumstances described above, I am satisfied that this issue was addressed swiftly and thoughtfully and action is underway to ensure accuracy of the ministry’s compliance statistics in the future. I am also pleased that the government intends, at my request, to conduct audits of five other ministries, in order to determine whether the issues that arose in this ministry are more widespread. My office will continue to work with the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, and the broader Ontario Public Service, to provide guidance and support as they ensure their compliance with Ontario’s access laws.