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BC's response to FOI requests slowest in Canada: audit

The B.C. government has the slowest provincial response rate for freedom of information requests in Canada, according to a new audit released Tuesday by Newspapers Canada.

"B.C. seems to have rules unto itself," said John Hinds, Newspapers Canada's president and CEO. According to Hinds, unlike most systems in Canada which have a 30-day total maximum response time, B.C. takes 30 business days. "In a way, it becomes 42 days," he said.

Newspapers Canada -- which represents approximately 800 daily and weekly community newspapers across Canada -- has conducted its National Freedom of Information Audit for the last six years. The annual audit measures how quickly and openly various levels of government respond to FOI requests, including federal, provincial and territorial departments, municipalities and hospitals.

To track provincial response times, 17 requests were sent to each province by the auditors. Four of those requests were sent to four departments or ministries each, and one additional request was sent to the department responsible for provincial health insurance. Hinds said his organization usually asks for "fairly mundane, normal things" for the audit, such as travel records and contracts.

Fourteen of the audit's 17 requests filed in B.C. were returned between 31 to 45 days. "If it's going to take 42 days," said Hinds, for a journalist, "your story's gone."

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Labour, Citizens' Services and Open Government said FOI response times differ from province to province, and that B.C.'s 30 business day response time has been in effect since 2002.

Of the requests received from the auditors, all were responded to on or before the 30 business day deadline, the spokesperson added.

"The B.C. government currently closes FOI requests on time 93 per cent of the time -- that's a 31 per cent improvement since 2008 despite an overall increase in FOI requests received," they said. "Last year, we received nearly eight-thousand FOI requests. That's four or five FOI requests every hour, every working day of the year."

The spokesperson added that this summer, B.C. became the first province to offer "truly open information and open data" with the launch of Data BC and Open Information.

Robyn Smith reports and edits for The Tyee.

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