Ombudsperson's Final Update - Acting on ATIP (2012)
The report was produced as a result of our examination into the difficulties taxpayers faced obtaining information from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) through requests made pursuant to the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, commonly referred to as Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) requests.
At the time, we received complaints related to ATIP requests where it was reported that the CRA was not:
- responding promptly to requests
- providing sufficient information about how to file requests
- explaining the reasons why there were delays in processing requests
The focus of the examination was on the impact the delays had on taxpayers, the challenges the CRA faced in meeting the requests, and the benefits of proactive disclosure. Our findings revealed the CRA:
- did not do enough to inform its employees and requestors about informal information requests
- should do more to inform requestors when it is unable to meet an extended deadline
- did not provide requestors with an estimated timeframe for completion
- placed the onus on the requestor to know what they needed, which led to requestors making large requests hoping what they needed would fall into the wide breadth of information they requested
- processed specific and precise requests faster
- had a lack of resources to action ATIP requests in a timely manner
- was not facilitating informal information requests
To address these findings, the Taxpayers’ Ombudsperson made the following recommendations:
- Ensure that the ATIP Directorate has efficient processes and adequate resources to reduce the backlog and process information requests in a timely manner.
- Promote the use of informal disclosure internally.
- Develop and communicate to its personnel clear policies and procedures for informal disclosure.
- Provide enhanced training to its personnel with regard to informal requests for information, particularly in the program areas that receive the most requests.
- Provide more complete information publicly to taxpayers about informal requests for information through its Web site, publications, and telephone enquiry lines.
- Advise requestors when the extended deadline will not be met for their request and it will fall into deemed-refusal status.
- Continue and enhance the release of completed access to information requests through its virtual reading room, and update its communication products in order to raise awareness of this service.
The CRA agreed to implement the recommendations and provided an action plan outlining how it intended to address them.
Since the report was published, the CRA has demonstrated it is following through with our recommendations. The CRA has met with our Office and provided written updates, with the last update in 2017, which is published on our webpageFootnote 1 , Influencing Change. Additional information and improvements are also detailed in the CRA’s Annual Reports to Parliament on the Administration of the Access to Information Act and the Administration of the Privacy Act.Footnote 2 Our analysis for this update includes a review of both the information we have been provided by the CRA and the information it provided to Parliament.
As outlined below, the CRA has taken numerous actions to address the recommendations in Acting on ATIP, while also identifying areas that will require continued and ongoing focus. Furthermore, it has demonstrated it is committed to improving the ATIP program and promoting informal disclosure.
The CRA has a legal requirement to provide “Canadian citizens, along with persons and corporations physically present in Canada, the right to request access to federal government records,”Footnote 3 and “individuals (or their authorized representatives) with a right of access to their own personal information, with limited and specific exceptions, and with a right of correction and or annotation”Footnote 4 Further, the CRA has a requirement to report on how it is upholding its legal requirements annually to Parliament. These obligations compel the continued focus on maintaining an effective ATIP program at the CRA.
Improvements to the ATIP program
In relation to Recommendation 1, the CRA took action to improve the service provided in its ATIP program by hiring additional staff, providing new training programs, and carrying out regular updates of its internal procedures manual.Footnote 5 Further, the CRA completed a Lean Six Sigma review of its ATIP processes in 2016-2017, to identify ways to increase efficiently.Footnote 6
The review identified 35 improvements including:
- Switching to paperless files
- Creating a Junior Support Officer position to triage files
- Improving communication with requesters
- Modifying the ATIP request form
The CRA indicated to us that as of November 29, 2018, it had already implemented 22 of the 35 improvements. We have not received further updates on whether all the recommendations have been implemented, however, feel the intentions to improve the service provided in the ATIP program are evident.
Processing of formal requests
We are encouraged by the progress the CRA has made in the ATIP program by reducing the backlogs of requests, streamlining processes, and increasing resources. When reviewing the Access to Information Act request trendFootnote 7 below, the number of requests remains relatively constant between the 2016-2017 and the 2019-2020 fiscal years; however, with the additional measures the CRA took it processed more requests then it received in the 2016-2017 and the 2017-2018 fiscal years. In the most recently reported fiscal year, 2019-2020, the CRA processed 133 requests less then it received. While this small shortfall could be attributed to the exponential growth seen in the pages processed over the past three fiscal years, the CRA should continuously look for new measures to effectively manage its resources so it can deal with possible increases in requests.
- Requests received: 3,139
- Requests completed: 2,572
- Pages processed: 1,233,194
- Requests received: 2,747
- Requests completed: 3,112
- Pages processed: 1,406,334
- Requests received: 2,750
- Requests completed: 2,772
- Pages processed: 1,641,339
- Requests received: 2,931
- Requests completed: 2,845
- Pages processed: 2,013,227
- Requests received: 2,864
- Requests completed: 2,731
- Pages processed: 1,953,575
When reviewing the Privacy Act requests trendFootnote 8 below, we are encouraged to see that even with the amount of requests increasing significantly over the last five years, the CRA has been able to process almost as many requests as it received.
Deemed refusal rate
Recommendation 1 requested the CRA process information requests in a timely manner. Therefore, we reviewed the CRA’s deemed refusal rateFootnote 9. While the CRA’s deemed refusal rate has fluctuated dramatically, both higher and lower, over the last eight years, it declined in the 2017-2018 and the 2018-2019 fiscal years. Most recently; however, in the 2019-2020 fiscal year 25%Footnote 10 of the requests made under the Access to Information Act and 11%Footnote 11 of the requests under the Privacy Act were deemed refused marking an increase. While we would like to see the deemed refusal rate significantly lower, we are encouraged that the CRA was able to lower it in its 2018-2019 fiscal, and we encourage the CRA do so going forward.
Deemed refusal status notification
In the CRA’s initial response to Recommendation 6, it indicated the ATIP procedures manual would be updated to reflect the requirement to notify requesters if their request is in deemed refusal status and if the extended deadline would not be met.
In an update provided to our Office in 2017, the CRA advised us that ATIP analysts go beyond informing requesters that their requests have fallen into deemed refusal status. The CRA indicated analysts are trained to maintain ongoing communication. Additionally, we were told that analysts document all communication with requesters and the CRA introduced a quality assurance function to verify the communication.
Subsequently, in 2018 we asked the CRA if the ATIP procedures manual has been updated to include a formal requirement to notify taxpayers when their request falls into deemed refusal status and that the extended deadline will not be met.
The CRA informed us that there is a Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) directive to notify taxpayers if a request under the Privacy Act will take more than 30 days to complete and the ATIP manual reflects this; however, there is no similar directive for requests under the Access to Information Act, therefore it is not explicitly indicated in the manual for these requests.
That said, because ATIP analysts are trained to provide status updates to requestors, beyond informing them of requests that have transitioned to deemed refusal status, we are satisfied that while there is no procedure explicitly for requests made under the Access to Information Act, requestors would be informed through the ongoing communication they are having with the ATIP analyst.
Release of completed access to information requests
The CRA also acted on Recommendation 7 for the use and enhancement of completed access to information requests. As part of the Government of Canada’s web renewal initiative, the CRA’s web presence was consolidated with those of other federal departments and agencies on Canada.ca. Now available at Completed Access to Information RequestsFootnote 12 visitors can search for completed ATIP requests, including those done by the CRA.
When we conducted a search on October 13, 2020 to see what completed access to information requests were available, there were 637 records for the CRA since October 2018. Of which, each can easily be requested by providing the requesters personal information.
While the CRA did not actively improve its Virtual Reading Room, we are encouraged by the access to completed ATIP requests available at Completed Access to Information Requests,Footnote 13 this not only fulfils the intention of our recommendation, but it also makes completed requests available to Canadians in a centralized location, further streamlining the process.
An opportunity we saw to provide quicker and more effective service was for the CRA to reduce its ATIP requests by promoting informal requests. “For example, if the CRA were to reduce the number of formal requests for information it may not require additional resources to process such requests.”Footnote 14 Specifically, the CRA has staff employed in various lines of business that can provide the taxpayer information directly, rather than directing a taxpayer to submit a formal request for information. The increase in the use of informal disclosure within the CRA would combat the administrative burden faced by ATIP requests.
Information available on informal disclosure
The CRA has taken many steps to promote informal disclosure internally, which addresses Recommendation 2. For example, the CRA created a comprehensive webpage on the CRA’s intranet, entitled Informal Disclosure of Taxpayer and Other Information, which provides an opportunity for employees to learn more about informal disclosure. Further, the webpage hyperlinks to a Directive for the Disclosure of Taxpayer and Other Information which came into effect on June 30, 2016, and addressed Recommendation 3. This Directive now provides all CRA employees with information on informal disclosure. In addition, we are encouraged to see the desired outcome of the Directive is to make maximum use of informal disclosure.
In addition, many taxpayers’ first point of contact to request information from the CRA is the general inquiry telephone number. When examining how the CRA handles information requests by phone, we examined the Internal Services Technical Help Guide (ISTHG) used by telephone agents. One of the pages we reviewed outlines general information about ATIP requests and describes how “[t]he CRA encourages taxpayer[s] to seek the information they need whenever possible through informal methods such as accessing My Account or contacting CRA call centers.” The page also references publicly available information such as the CRA’s reading rooms and previously released requests on its external website as potential sources of information for taxpayers.
Furthering Recommendation 5, we note the CRA promotes and provides more complete information publicly about informal requests via its “Request information from the CRA” webpage.Footnote 15 Here, as part of a two-step process, taxpayers are encouraged to first consider information that may already be available via CRA’s services (My Account, My Business Account, or public Charities Listings). Then, if other information is desired, taxpayers are advised on how to make a formal request, if necessary.
Training and resources
Recommendation 4 stressed the importance of the CRA providing enhanced training on informal disclosure. In this regard, we are encouraged to hear that in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, 1,222 CRA employees participated in online and instructor lead training, some of which included the topic of informal disclosure. Further, we were pleased to see the CRA Legal Services Branch was used to train staff on how to prepare documents for release through informal disclosure. Specifically, that 1,778 employees participated in the specialized training given by the Legal Services Branch in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.Footnote 16
In addition, a positive change we observed can be seen in how the CRA is embracing information disclosure through its participation in the international initiative Right to Know Day.Footnote 17 The CRA alongside other Canadian organizations has extended this initiative to a week and it created an internal dedicated Right to Know Week webpage. The most recent Right to Know week (September 23 to 28, 2020) reinforced the CRA’s commitment to Open Government. During this week the CRA promoted signing up for open government webinars. Further, it provided information on the improvement it made by implementing ePost Connect, a service that allows the CRA to securely share confidential information with requesters electronically, eliminating the dependency on postage, paper, and DVDs. On the Right to Know Week webpage the CRA also links to its internal Informal Disclosure of taxpayer information KnowHowFootnote 18 webpage. On this dedicated webpage the CRA provides comprehensive information on informal disclosure. Further, it reiterates that “[i]t can be easier and faster for a taxpayer to obtain their information informally rather than through an ATIP request.”
All of these actions further promote the release of information that can be disclosed, which is a drastic change from what our review uncovered in our initial examination.
The primary issue that led to our examination of the CRA’s ATIP program was delays experienced by requesters seeking information from the CRA pursuant to ATIP. We felt that promoting the use of informal disclosure would be an alternative approach taxpayers could use and would put less of a burden on the CRA and lessen the delay for requestors.
The CRA has taken appropriate steps to address the recommendations in the Acting on ATIP report.
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