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Advocate files complaint with info commissioner over gov't FOI non-responses

A freedom of information advocacy group filed a complaint with the province's information commissioner yesterday, claiming the number of times the B.C. government responds to a general FOI request by saying it has no documents has sharply risen over the last decade.

According to analysis by the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the number of FOI requests returned to applicants without responsive records has increased from near zero to 23 per cent since the 2002/03 fiscal year.

Using statistics published by the government, the advocacy group found the increase appears to have the biggest effect "on those likely to ask awkward or impertinent questions of the government," like media organizations and political parties.

In the complaint, BC FIPA executive director Vincent Gogolek called on Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham to conduct an investigation into reasons for the increase.

It's a trend the commissioner has noticed before. In last September's annual report on the timeliness of government's access to information responses, the commissioner's office also noted an increase in "no responsive records" responses between 2009/10 and 2010/11.

One explanation, the commissioner was told, is that applicants sometimes ask for the same records from multiple ministries at the same time. If only one or two ministries hold the responsive records, all other responses will come back to the requester as "no responsive records."

"Government believes this type of situation is more common now that a centralized request form available online makes it easier for individuals to request records from multiple ministries," the report states.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Citizens' Services and Open Government wrote via email that there are a "variety of reasons" a request can result in a "no records released" response, and confirmed that the spike may stem from the ease of making a request to several public bodies at once.

"As a consequence, even when the applicant receives the information they requested, the number of 'no responsive records' is multiplied," they wrote.*

A spokesperson for Commissioner Denham says her office received the complaint and will review it soon.

Robyn Smith reports for The Tyee.

*Story updated 6:45 p.m.

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