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BC government FOI record should worry public: report

A watchdog organization's review of the British Columbia government's handling of freedom of information requests found fewer than half of all requests for general information are met within legal deadlines.

“Requests for personal information, which constitute about 68 percent of all requests, are generally non-controversial and the government has a good record of meeting timelines for these,” wrote Mitch Anderson, Darrell Evans and Vincent Gogolek, the authors of Failing FOI: How the BC Government Flouts the Freedom of Information Act and Stonewalls FOI Requests.

“Requests for general records, on the other hand, are made in order to scrutinize government policies and actions and hold the government accountable for them,” said the report released today by the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “When one focuses on requests for general information, an even darker picture emerges of government non-compliance with the requirements of the FOI act.”

It typically takes far longer than the legal time limits of 30 business days to get a response and the government's tracking system is being used to flag politically sensitive requests, the authors found. Requests from political parties, advocacy groups and journalists generally take longer to fill.

Between 2006 and 2008 some 51.5 percent of general requests were met with “deemed refusals” where the government either failed to respond at all or exceeded time limits, they wrote.

“Although this treatment is being dealt to particular groups the government finds troublesome, these findings should be of great concern to the general public,” the report said. “Freedom of Information is a right of all citizens and the principle of access to information is critical to the health of our society.”

Government transparency leads to institutions that are more open, honest and accountable to the public, they wrote.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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