May 8, 2009

Report finds government stonewalling on FOI requests


BC’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) released a report yesterday showing secrecy in government is even a bigger problem that we thought.

A February report from BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner’s described what he called, “an unacceptable pattern of government-wide failure to respond to access requests in as timely a fashion as it should.”

But the Commissioner’s study grouped both requests for personal information and general information. The FIPA study, which had access to the government’s own FOI data base, looked only at general records.

Requests for general records…are made in order to scrutinize government policies and actions and hold the government accountable for them. When one focuses on requests for general information, an even darker pictured emerges of government non-compliance with the FOI Act.

The FOI act requires government to respond to these requests within 30 working days. FIPA found that between 2006 and 2008 more than half of responses failed to meet this legal requirement. People considered troublemakers by the government were much more likely to have their requests delayed. FIPA reports, “Our analysis found that political parties, interest groups and the media appear to be singled out for special treatment under the Act.” Ministries assign “sensitivity ratings” to FOI requests. The media, political parties and interest groups are much more likely than other groups to have their requests marked as highly sensitive. And highly sensitive requests are almost three times as likely to be delayed as those with a low sensitivity. At an average of 110 days to respond, highly sensitive requests took more than twice as long as low sensitivity requests. According to Professor Alasdair Roberts, the province’s FOI tracking system,

may be the most sophisticated of its kind in North America. It provides numerous details on who is making requests, response times and the eventual outcomes.

As bad as all this may seem, FIPA finds an even worse outcome. Fewer people and groups are even bothering to use the FOI legislation. Requests fell from 2,381 in 2006, to 2,225 in 2007 and then to 1,793 in 2008. FIPA says, “We attribute this to increasing frustration and disenchantment with the many barriers that now characterize the FOI process.” FIPA concludes:

“Over the past 10 years, a government culture has developed that employs every possible tactic to discourage and delay requests for information that it considers in any way “sensitive.” The culture of denial has employed a combination of budget and staff cuts, legislative and policy changes, government reorganization, delaying tactics, excessive use of the Act’s exceptions, and the extension of secrecy to additional government committees.”