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BC Flunks Freedom of Info Audit as Officials Go into Email Frenzy

Seven hundred pages of internal chatter reveal handwringing as BC proves slowest to fill FOIs.

By Robyn Smith, 30 Sep 2011, TheTyee.ca

Pile of documents

Documents reveal a lot of talk in BC government over FOI request audit.

British Columbia's government was part of a test early this year to see how quickly and efficiently it responded to freedom-of-information requests. Not only did B.C. prove to be slower than any other province, but when those responsible caught wind of the fact that they were being measured, they went into a tizzy, piling up hundreds of pages of communications.

That picture of a bureaucracy on agitated high alert emerges from Newspapers Canada's annual National Freedom of Information Audit, which sent the same FOI request to provincial governments across Canada to compare how they would perform. When they became aware they were under scrutiny, bureaucrats within the B.C. Ministry of Labour, Citizens' Services and Open Government exchanged more than 700 pages of strategy emails and briefing notes about the audit, both internally and with other provincial and municipal FOI departments across Canada.

The emails and briefs were later obtained by Newspapers Canada after a follow-up FOI request. The organization has since published 49 of the pages on its website.

A spokesperson from the ministry -- which governs Information Access Operations (IAO), the department in charge of FOI processing in B.C. -- said the amount of emails exchanged was "large," but not unusual, as the requests were "extremely complex."

But John Hinds, Newspapers Canada's president and CEO, called the flurry of communication his organization's audit sparked "kind of amusing, and in a way very troubling." He called out officials for spending so much time discussing the requests "instead of actually just doing their job."

This year's audit concluded the province had the slowest provincial FOI response rate in the country. The auditors attribute the lethargy to differences in legislated response times: B.C. is required to release information within 30 business days, while other provinces respond within 30 calendar days.

How the audit works

For the past six years, Newspapers Canada's audit has measured how various government departments respond to FOI requests. The organization sends multiple requests to federal, provincial and territorial departments, municipalities and hospitals, and compares the speed and quality of responses.

Newspapers Canada requested "straightforward," "readily accessible and easily located" information for this year's audit, according to its report. Requests sent to provinces and territories were the same, which may be how the audit requests were identified by government officials. It's not clear who first identified the requests as part of the audit.

According to the email exchanges, some of the FOI materials requested by the 2011 auditors include:

"Records indicating the number of person years and the annual budget for each of the past three fiscal years for public communications (including media relations)" and;

"Any guidelines for personal or business use of social media sites by employees. Social media sites include but are not limited to Twitter and Facebook."

Newspapers Canada filed its follow-up request in May, and after extending the deadline, the government released the emails and briefs to the auditors on August 16, said lead auditor and journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones.

The pages of emails and briefings obtained show B.C. officials caught wind of the audit almost immediately after receiving the requests in early January.

'Clock is ticking against us'

The emails also show the audit requests were a high priority of B.C. government officials. As well, Labour, Citizens' Services and Open Government deputy minister Kim Henderson received briefing notes on the audit (see pages 46-49 of the posted documents.)

In an email sent Jan. 28, 2011, and marked "high" importance, B.C.'s Information Access Operations (IAO) executive director Kathleen Ward provided this update to Bert Phipps, Shared Services BC's chief operating officer:

Subject: FW: Status report on cross country requests

Here is info as promised earlier today. It is looking pretty good, but I am aware the clock is ticking against us and the race is on to release fast. Teams are trying to expedite.

The audit was still a hot topic on Mar. 8, 2011, when IAO manager Maxine Vanzetta sent a synopsis of the ministry's handling of the audit requests to director Ward:

Between January 4, 2011 and January 12, 2011, Information Access Operations received 21 separate requests. This resulted in 'five' cross government requests - which IAO takes a coordinated approach to our response when more than three Ministries have been impacted by the same request.

Of these 21 requests, all of them were responded to on or before their legislated due date -- IAO met a 100% compliance.

However, the logistics' associated with these type of requests is quite involved. Three out of the 23 requests resulted in the application of minimal fees, IAO made several attempts to contact the applicant to assist us in clarifying and narrowing the requests in hopes of eliminating the fees in their entirety.

The total average processing days for these requests, overall, was 21 working days. Wow, an all time record.

This particular email gave Vallance-Jones reason for optimism.

"I'm thinking, great! And you know, you have a hundred of other requesters in British Columbia who I think would appreciate their requests being done in record time as well," he said, adding that the email shows the ministry has "set a standard that they're going to have to meet now."

"And if they don't meet that standard, then I would argue that (people) have very good cause now to say, 'why not'?"

'We're trying to keep the pressure on'

While surprised by the "explicitness" and "scope" of the ministry's effort, Vallance-Jones said it appears the government did its "normal due diligence" in responding to the audit requests.

He said the government's identification of the audit requests did not compromise future Newspapers Canada audits, and warned that governments shouldn't assume the audit will be the same year after year, as the auditors will keep changing tactics.

"Obviously we're going to do different things, to try and dig for the truth," he said. "We're trying to keep the pressure on for openness."

Although the emails and briefings were released in August, the documents were not posted on B.C.'s Open Information website. A spokesperson from the ministry said the release of FOI material on Open Information took effect July 19, and that requests made prior to that date were not released online.

However, some FOIs requested by The Tyee before July 19 but made available after have been posted on the Open Information website, suggesting that the policy may not be ironclad.  [Tyee]

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