The Yukon’s public-service watchdog saw her workload double in 2018 compared to the year prior, with a sudden spike in whistleblower cases and requests to review the outcomes of access-to-information requests making up the lion’s share of the work.
Those were among the findings contained in the 2018 annual report by Diane McLeod-McKay, who serves as the territory’s ombudsman, information and privacy commissioner and public interest disclosure commissioner.
The 34-page document, released April 29 after being tabled in the legislative assembly, outlines the key achievements as well as challenges faced by each of McLeod-McKay’s offices last year, and also provides examples of cases that each handled.
In the report’s opening message, McLeod-McKay describes 2018 as an “incredibly busy and challenging year” for her offices — on top of having to fill three out of five staffing positions, her offices also opened 180 files in total, compared to 90 in 2017.
The busiest office was the one of the information and privacy commissioner (IPC), which accounted for 136 files in 2018. (In 2017, by comparison, the office opened just 64).
Of those, 59 files were requests for review of the decisions made by various Yukon government departments in response to access to information requests, which are governed by the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPP).
The report pointed at lack of proper training and willingness to cooperate with the IPC amongst the staff at public bodies as the reasons behind a spike in requests for review — for example, not knowing how to properly conduct searches for records and taking months to provide the IPC with records that are subject to a review.
In an interview April 30, McLeod-McKay added that the lack of proper upfront work by some public bodies has a “domino effect.”
“When things aren’t … going well within the departments, it flows through to my office, and of course, that just means a whole bunch of resources being used to process these requests that shouldn’t be occurring,” she said.
“… I’m so backlogged right now, I have adjudications that are a year old that I can’t get to. And it’s very problematic from an access-to-information perspective, and distressing, I think, from a public who have a right of access.”
The IPC office also saw a “slight increase” in Health Information Privacy and Management Act (HIPMA) files in 2018, opening 33 compared to 31 in 2017.
McLeod-McKay said she plans on asking for funding for an additional employee in 2020-2021 because, at the moment, the office’s workload is not sustainable.
On the public interest disclosure commissioner side, the report says the office saw a “significant increase” in cases involving the Public Interest Disclosure of Wrongdoing Act (PIDWA) — 14 in 2018, compared to just two the year prior.
“Cases received under PIDWA have proven to be large and complex; they take a significant amount of resources to investigate,” the report says, adding that the office has experienced “challenges” with both the justice and health and social services departments when it comes to obtaining evidence. “These cases have significantly taxed the resources in my office and our ability to deliver on all our mandates.”
The most well-known of the cases, perhaps, was a complaint into how staff were treating children at Whitehorse group homes.
McLeod-McKay attributed the “spike” in PIDWA cases to more public-service employees now knowing about the legislation and feeling more comfortable coming forward with complaints after becoming familiar with it.
The report notes that after PIDWA came into effect, the office received no additional funding or resources despite the extra responsibilities it took on under the act, meaning there was just one employee dedicated to investigations — 12 in 2018.
The Yukon government approved McLeod-McKay’s request for funding for one additional full-time employee for 2019-20, the report says.
Like the other offices, the Yukon Ombudsman also saw an increase in complaints, although the report describes it as “marginal” — 30 in 2018, compared to 25 the year before. Eight of those complaints were about the Department of Health and Social Services; five were about the justice department; and another five were about the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources.
In most of the cases, the report notes, the office found that the public body had acted fairly, but in some cases, found “the need to increase transparency, so that individuals can access information more readily about those services.”
The report also noted that the ombudsman can only launch investigations after it receives complaints, and not under its own volition. This had an impact on the group homes investigation, the report says, which was triggered by a complaint under PIDWA but which the office thought would have been better-suited for the ombudsman.
In her interview, McLeod-McKay added that the annual report was not just intended for the Yukon government to read.
“I would encourage people to read the stories and if they have any questions about issues that they may be facing or things they want to ask us about, that they should contact our office,” she said.
McLeod-McKay’s full report is available online here.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org