In the year the British Columbia government introduced an application fee for general FOI requests, the number of applications dropped but the time it took to respond to them increased.
The figures are included in the annual “Report on the administration of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act 2021-22” that Citizens’ Services Minister Lisa Beare tabled in the legislature last week.
It shows that government ministries received 5,253 general FOI requests in the year that ended March 31, which included the first four months that the government charged a $10 application fee.
That was a drop from 6,467 the year before and 8,147 the year before that.
Those figures do not include the requests people made for their personal information, which do not require an application fee and remained steady.
The report also shows that on average responses took 65 days. That was seven more days than a year earlier and 16 days longer than two years ago, though the report says processing time improved on all but the most complex three per cent of requests.
BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon said the report shows the government’s mismanagement of the FOI system.
“Only in this government, with a dramatic reduction of demand, can they still have a worsening response rate in terms of getting information back to people,” said Falcon. “In my view that can only be because it’s a concerted effort to try and thwart getting uncomfortable information out to the public.”
Falcon said the reduction in the number of FOI requests is clearly related to the new fee and acknowledged that his own BC Liberal caucus couldn’t afford to make as many requests as it did in previous years.
“They are making every effort possible to ensure the public cannot get access to correct information that would show just how bad things really are, and I think that’s really unfortunate,” Falcon said.
“The fact this government, which was appropriately described by the Canadian Association of Journalists as the most secretive government in Canada, the fact that they would put a fee on top of FOI requests, which now affects British Columbians’ ability to get the information that they rightfully deserve, I think that in itself is atrocious.”
“We believe people should have access to government information in a timely manner,” she told reporters at the time. “Through changes in this legislation we’re going to be able to provide access quicker to people.”
Debating the bill in the legislature Beare again said the goal was to make sure people could access information in a timely manner. “A modest application fee is about reinforcing the spirit and the intent of the act.”
And when pressed by Simi Sara on CKNW on how a fee would improve FOI response times, Beare said the system was clogged with requests. “Absolutely, it's going to speed up the time.”
So far it hasn’t worked out the way she’d hoped, Beare told The Tyee. While the report shows interesting trends, she said, response times had not improved. “We’re sitting at about 82 per cent on-time right now, so not entirely dissimilar to what we had before.”
One reason the average response time isn’t better is because of a drop in “repetitive or frivolous” requests for records that didn’t exist and that could be responded to quickly, she said. “Those have been eliminated from the system.”
At the same time the government had reduced the backlog in requests waiting for responses by 22 per cent, she said, which included closing some files that had been open for a very long time. That increased the average number of days for a response, as files are only included once they’ve been closed.
With the introduction of the application fee, the only substantial reduction in requests was in those from political parties, Beare said. “To date, in early numbers, we’re seeing that in other than one category the requests have remained the same.”
It has only been a year with the fee in place and it’s early to draw conclusions, she added. “I need to keep monitoring, obviously.”
A spokesperson for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C., Michael McEvoy, said the office was reviewing the report and that it was too soon for it to comment. The OIPC has its own review underway of the first six months after the fee was introduced and will release its report to the public when complete.
Jason Woywada, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said while the government’s FOI accountability report isn’t all bad, it does show the impact of the new application fee.
“What we’re seeing is people paying more for FOI but continuing to see more delays,” Woywada said. The delays persist despite both the total volume of requests and cross-government requests — ones that seek information from four or more ministries — dropping. “If the amount of work is less, and the work is simpler, why is it taking more time to do it?”
One positive is that when requests more than a year overdue are excluded from the calculation, the average processing time dropped from 45 days a year earlier to 41 days, he said.
While that’s an improvement, he added, it’s clear the government still fails to process the vast majority of requests within the 30-day time limit mandated in the FOI law.
The fee is also making the average FOI request more expensive, Woywada said. “This government is well on the way to doubling the total average fee for all FOI requests from $5 to $10 per request.” As well as the application fee, the government charges fees based on the time taken to process requests.
The Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has been analyzing patterns in the publicly available information about FOI requests over the last year.
“When we consider what happened after they passed the act, it’s as though they turned off the switch on freedom of information,” Woywada said. “The number of requests dropped precipitously.”
Both the fee itself and people’s perceptions of it are barriers to people getting access to information, he said. In turn, he added, that contributes to eroding trust in the government and a diminishing of the trust it could gain through greater transparency.