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Commissioner sees big problems with BC freedom of information

David Loukidelis, Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, issued a report on February 15 about the government’s chronic problem with providing prompt access to information. It is not good news.

Timeliness of Government’s Access to Information Responses tells us that the B.C. government responds slowly and unequally to requests for information. The key findings:

The government closed 5,999 access to information requests in calendar year 2008. It took an average of 35 business days to respond to requests. It managed to respond within the time required by law only 71% of the time––including allowing for permitted time extensions and time properly on hold, as discussed below––meaning that almost one third of government’s responses were late and thus in violation of the law. When a response was overdue, it was overdue, on average, by 37 business days.

Of the 22 ministries and other public bodies reviewed, only 4 had an average processing time of 30 business days or less.

The figures are even more disturbing when response time performance is calculated according to the type of requester. ... [R]esponses to access requests made by political parties are on time only 53%, while responses to businesses and other public bodies are on time 79% and 94% of the time respectively.

Further, when they are overdue––again, request responses are ‘overdue’ when they fall outside any permitted time extensions or on-hold time––responses to requests by political parties are overdue on average 64 days, compared to 36 and 23, respectively, for businesses and other public bodies.

Loukidelis says the government, having seen his report, is preparing to re-structure the way it responds to information requests (the government response is included in the report). But two other things, he says, must happen:

First, government must cease using any kind of sensitivity ratings, whether these are applied to types of requesters––for example, media, political parties and interest groups—or to complex or otherwise difficult requests. The statistics reported here indicate, alarmingly, that access requests by political parties in particular are responded to significantly slower than requests from, for example, businesses or individuals.

It is not clear whether this is due to use of applicant-related sensitivity ratings, but on its face the facts suggest different treatment. If this is the case, it must stop at once.

Second, the responsible minister, the Minister of Labour and Citizens’ Services, needs to start meeting the minister’s statutory obligation, under s. 68 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, to report annually to the Legislative Assembly on the administration of that law.

This important transparency and accountability duty has been fulfilled only once since 1993 and it is time for government to use this tool to report on its timeliness in responding to requests and its other responsibilities, including relating to privacy.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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