B.C. failing to meet access to information requirements

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

By Laura Tribe

Yesterday the B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, released a special report on the state of access to information in the province.

The report, A Step Backwards: Report Card on Government’s Access to Information Responses, highlights numerous failings by the B.C. government to meet the requirements of the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The report takes the B.C. government to task, noting in particular an increase in delays in how long it is taking the government to respond to requests once they are received. In 2013/14, the province completed 9832 requests, of which only 74% were responded to on time (down from 87% the year prior). It took an average of 44 business days for requests to be processed, while overdue requests were an average of 47 business days late.

On the positive side, the report does observe that there has been a reduction in the number of requests that resulted in “no responsive records” – when information on the request hasn’t been documented – a noted problem in B.C. in the past, particularly in the Premier’s office. The year has seen an improvement, as only 19% of the requests in 2013-14 returned no results, as opposed to 26% the year prior. Additionally, the fees quoted for responses were not seen to be a deterrent in applicants pursuing requests.

In her report, Dehman makes suggestions for ways to improve the system and reduce delays, including recommending that the government proactively release some information, such as Minister and senior official calendar information, instead of waiting for it to be requested. This would free up a substantial amount of time, as it is some of the most commonly requested data.

British Columbia is not the only province in the country struggling with poor performance on access to information. Newspapers Canada’s annual FOI Audit examines at access to information systems across the country, examining all provinces, territories and municipalities with ATI systems, and continues to find challenges across the board. The federal government isn’t doing any better; in CJFE’s 2014 Free Expression Report Card, it received an F for its poor access to information performance.

Sunday, September 28 marks Right to Know Day, and it’s worth reflecting on the state of our access to information systems in Canada. As the B.C. Commissioner’s report states, a “fundamental element of democracy is that citizens have a right to access government records.”

So how well is Canada’s democracy really faring?

Read the full report (PDF).

Laura Tribe is CJFE’s National and Digital Programs Lead. Follow her on Twitter @ltribe