Feb 15, 2009

Government compliance with legal obligations far from good


BC’s Freedom of Information Commissioner released his annual report last Friday. These reports are a pretty good indication of how open and transparent our government is.

The Commissioner is unhappy and he says so in tough language:

The stark fact is that the government’s overall record of compliance with its legal obligations under FIPPA is far from good. Even if they do not expect perfect compliance at all times or across government, British Columbians have a right to expect better than they are getting. They expect their requests for information about government actions and performance will be responded to in accordance with the law. Without timely compliance, the important public policy objectives of access to information – transparent and accountable government – wither.

The Commission says the government is taking 51 days on average to respond to requests not dealing with personal information. The law requires a response within 30 days. The Commissioner does not issue grades to ministries, but he does list the worst offenders. The Office of the Premier, which you would hope would have an obligation to set a good example, is the worst. Only 31% of requests get dealt with in the legal time frame. On average, the Premier’s Office takes 59 days.

Sadly, the situation is much worse than the Commissioner describes. He deals with averages but there are plenty of examples that take far longer than the averages. I have one request that has been outstanding since March 2007. That’s what? About 430 working days so far?

Some agencies fudge the numbers by making partial releases within the timeline. By doing that they are deemed to have responded and it becomes an appeal instead. That starts a separate process not counted in the time lines the Commissioner is talking about.

The appeals are the real time killers. The Commissioner’s Office is understaffed. The appeal period is routinely extended and can take over a year.

What’s that sound you hear? It’s transparency and accountability – withering.