Good afternoon. Thank you, Senator.
Mr. Joint Chair, honourable senators and members of Parliament, we appreciate the invitation to address the committee today on the digitization of responses to written questions and the work already under way to make documents tabled in the House of Commons more readily available to parliamentarians and the public.
To set a bit of context, there are more than 2,300 sessional papers tabled in the House of Commons each year. These documents include annual reports from various departments and agencies and departmental performance reports, as well as government responses to committee reports, petitions and questions on the order paper, to name a few.
Every document tabled in the House of Commons is filed in the secretariat at the Journals branch. An identical copy is provided to the Library of Parliament for parliamentarians and their staff to consult at any time.
There has been a long-standing interest in improving access to sessional papers. Many sessional papers are made available online in the hours or days following the tabling, though there is not a central repository of all such documents. The type of document and the content owner determine how it is made available online.
For example, some departments and agencies prepare electronic versions of each of their documents and systematically publish them to a specific website. Estimates documents, budget documents and order in council appointments all fall into this category.
Documents produced by the House of Commons, such as committee reports and reports from interparliamentary delegations, are made available on the House of Commons and parliamentary websites as soon as possible following the tabling, often within a few minutes.
In the last Parliament, the 33rd report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs recommending the establishment of an electronic petition system was concurred in by the House and the solution was launched in December 2015.
Since then, government responses to electronic petitions are posted on the e-petitions website. The next logical step was to expand on this offering and to add paper petitions and their corresponding responses. Following very productive discussions with our colleagues from the Privy Council Office responsible for coordinating the government's responses to petitions, an initiative is currently under way.
We are confident that paper petitions will be included in the electronic petition system at the start of the next Parliament.
As the Clerk of the House indicated in his preliminary remarks to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on May 8 of this year, the initiative will “be a useful pilot project toward greater use of electronic tabling and dissemination of sessional papers, including answers to written questions”.
This brings us to the most challenging category of documents, namely, government responses to written questions made orders for return, This category is of great interest to this committee and rightfully so. These responses account for approximately 21% of all sessional papers tabled in the House of Commons, compared to 25% for responses to petitions. The Library of Parliament does systematically publish these in an electronic format to an internal website available to parliamentarians and staff, usually within 24 to 48 hours of tabling. Library staff scan the paper copies tabled in the House to create a PDF document.
As the Parliamentary Librarian, Ms. L'Heureux, indicated—and I believe Ms. Lank mentioned it as well—at a previous meeting, one of the challenges with the electronic version produced by the Library of Parliament is that it is simply an image of the paper copy and it is not fully accessible to persons with visual disabilities. Issues surrounding accessibility are among the biggest challenges when it comes to the digitization and publishing process.
Responses to written questions are often more complex documents than responses to petitions. The latter are produced by a single department and are usually just a few paragraphs of plain text. Responses to written questions vary in length and format. Some are as simple as a response to a petition, but many come from multiple departments and include dozens or even hundreds of pages of text. These pages can contain lengthy tables, graphics or images, which are much more challenging to publish in an accessible format.
The House could, however, take inspiration from the success of the petitions model in tackling these challenges. Close collaboration with the Privy Council Office would of course be required in order to proceed, as well as with the Treasury Board Secretariat, which plays a leadership role in the area of information management, information technology initiatives and accessibility.
As the House of Commons does not create or own the content of the responses, the engagement of our partners in this process would be paramount to ensure its success, especially in relation to ensuring that the electronic versions are fully accessible to persons with visual disabilities.
The House administration continues to strive to provide parliamentarians, their staff and the public with timely access to parliamentary information of all kinds. We are proud of the progress we have made and the successful collaboration with the Privy Council Office to date, and we look forward to further improving the services we offer to parliamentarians and, indeed, to all Canadians.
Thank you for your interest in this topic and for the opportunity to speak about this subject.
I understand that Mr. Dufresne would like to say a few words.
Madam Joint Chair, members of the joint committee, I am pleased to be here, not just as a law clerk and parliamentary counsel for the House of Commons, but also as the inclusion and diversity champion at the House Administration. I look forward to answering your questions about the legal dimension of accessibility for persons with disabilities, a fundamental issue.
Indeed, accessibility for persons with disabilities with respect to documents and information is protected currently under the Canadian Human Rights Act and in proposed Bill on ensuring a barrier-free Canada, currently under study before the committee.
I will be happy to take any questions you may have on this important matter as it relates to the issues at hand.
Currently, written questions are all submitted in hard copy, and the process is pretty straightforward. Using the Order Paper and Notice Paper, the Privy Council usually forwards written questions to the appropriate departments or agencies, which come back to us with paper documents, sent by courier, that are eventually tabled in the House.
As for a system with the capacity to do that electronically, we already have the electronic petitions system, which could be used.
Unfortunately, the current system needs some work because there are still a few obstacles, even when an electronic copy is sent by email, as is currently the case with electronic petitions. The email comes in with a PDF document attached and it's posted on the website.
There's an accessibility issue because it's not fully accessible. We need our various systems to communicate with one another so we can send the data and create a fully accessible document. That's what we hope to do as part of the electronic petitions project, while including paper-based petitions. At some point, we'll have to find a solution for questions.
Along the senator's line of questions, and I want to go back to my colleague from the NDP who has stated it as well, are we taking steps to possibly look at other jurisdictions?
In every committee I've served on, that was always one of my first questions: What other jurisdictions have these challenges?
Mr. Rodrigue, you have answered some of that, but I'm just curious. If we are taking steps to possibly go, I would think Great Britain would be a prime example, the first one to come to mind. Are we taking steps to possibly see what they're doing?
It does happen. There are human rights complaints filed from time to time, and they are dealt with. They are responded to.
The human rights process works in such a way that, at the initial stages, there's an attempt to resolve the matter. Those steps are taken. We have not had a complaint that has gone on to decision, but the issues are there, and the human rights principles, both in the Canadian Human Rights Act and in proposed Bill , really go to the efforts that are made at the front end and at the back end to ensure the full participation of persons with disabilities in society.
It's obviously something that is taken very seriously by the House of Commons, the House of Commons administration and the government as well.
It is an area where there is a need for collaboration between the two institutions to ensure that the best way is found to ensure accessibility.
Actually, you have sort of answered my question.
To help you move in this direction, you said that one solution would be to give you time to meet and then invite you back to provide us with a progress report.
Who makes the decision and gives the green light, ultimately, to move in the direction of digitization? Is it the Privy Council Office? Do you have to meet with its members? If not, who are the people with whom you have to negotiate? Who are those people?
Is there a timeline and do you have meetings already planned? Do we have to invite you back in two, three or six months?
Regardless, we're looking at 2015, and we're now looking at 2018. We're some three years into the process, and it doesn't appear that we've gone anywhere with it. You're saying we're about to meet with our British counterparts.
My colleague here says he'd like to rush it, and my colleague across says we should use a little caution, but we seem to be using a lot of caution in some of your wording here and there, Mr. Dufresne. It's almost as if we're not wanting to make decisions because there may be some complications or there may be....
My God, it's been four years to get this process going and we're nowhere. We're not much further ahead than when David spent the better part of a couple of weeks drafting this. It is complicated, I agree, but it sounds like some reports I was hearing in another committee where a whole bunch of departments weren't doing anything because they didn't want to step on anybody's toes, and nothing was getting done.
How long do you think it will take? I guess it's just as simple as that. How long do we keep putting it off? It's been four years now for something that's not that complicated, I don't think.
It's time for it.
I don't know if this is the right way to go. I understand and agree that, at the moment, no one has access to the documents. However, as I understand it, the Library receives documents at the last minute in PDF, which is not an electronic format.
So it seems to me that the most logical way to help the Library people publish all these documents would be for them to be able to receive documents from the various departments in electronic form as they go along. That seems to me to be a much more logical and reasonable solution.
Mr. Rodrigue also said that they do not have the tool they need to convert all documents in a consistent way. If that tool does not exist, it is not going to be invented in a month or so. If they do not have it, it would at least help them if all departments were required to send their documents in electronic format as they go along and not on the day they are sent, which is too difficult.
Let us put ourselves in their shoes: even if they were forced to do it in 30 days, it could not be done.
Madam Chair, I don't believe for a minute that there doesn't exist.... If we can put a man on the moon, somewhere there is a technological answer. Our witnesses today said that they were reaching out to Britain and so on. I am a little surprised that it's taken four years to do that.
I think what we're missing is some political will somewhere in the bureaucracy. People aren't taking this seriously. I think it's important that we show Parliament that there is public demand and concern.
I would like to amend my colleague's motion by adding a phrase or a clause that would suggest that this committee invite representatives from the Council of Canadians with Disabilities to appear here to tell us about the need that exists. We are, in effect, responding, in our report to Parliament, to a public demand for access to these documents and that the status quo not continue to be acceptable. It is not some vanity thing on the part of MPs but in fact is a real public need.
I think if we called on these people, especially considering the accessible Canada act which is now before Parliament, that would give us some added momentum, perhaps. It would only take one meeting. It wouldn't be a long delay. We wouldn't have to have a whole lot of hearings. It would provide us with some oomph to get this paid attention to, because it certainly hasn't been followed up on since our colleague wrote the initial motion.