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Shhhhh! It's 'Right to Know Week'

BC Libs so quiet about their own proclamation, you'd hardly know.

Russ Francis 28 Sep
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Closed session, and all quie

This is Right to Know Week, according to a proclamation from the B.C. government. The formal announcement declaring this joyous week is filled with some pretty lofty thoughts.

For instance: "Whereas the government of British Columbia has adopted the principle of open and transparent government..."

And: "Whereas the access to information ensures British Columbia citizens have an opportunity to participate meaningfully in the democratic process..."

This, too: "Whereas access to information promotes open government..."

By an unfortunate coincidence, the cabinet passed the order allowing the proclamation nearly four years ago -- just as the first phase of the government's 35 per cent cut in the budget of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner was kicking in. (Though the cut has since been restored, the office is hardly flush.)

Given that the office is, among other things, the watchdog for the government's information-access practices and policies, the practical consequences of that slash in funding were somewhat counter to "open and transparent government."

It meant requests for review took far longer to be handled. Many requesters, realizing they would face big delays, simply gave up on the process.

In 2002-03, a total of 284 information requests made of the central government were abandoned. Likely, many more made of municipalities, health authorities, universities and other public bodies were also dropped.

Cancelled fall session

To mark this historic week, NDP labour and citizens' services critic Chuck Puchmayr had a few thoughts about accessing government records.

Puchmayr says the Liberals' cancellation of the fall legislature session doesn't exactly jibe with the noble thoughts about open government behind Right to Know Week.

"One part of open government is allowing the opposition to be involved in government, and they're certainly not doing that," Puchmayr says.

The Liberals' removal of B.C. Ferries from the reaches of B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act also rankles Puchmayr.

"I think it's very dangerous to do that to something that truly belongs to the people of B.C.," he says.

Puchmayr notes that some information requesters are being assessed huge fee estimates.

"You're restricting information to those that can afford it," Puchmayr says. "It's pretty shocking."

I happen to agree, especially since, prior to 2001, the Liberals energetically pointed out that taxpayers had already paid for the information once. "Why charge them again?" was the cry from the opposition Liberals.

However, the practice is hardly new. Large fee estimates were common under the NDP government, too: that was why, in opposition, the Liberals were so energetically opposed to them.

Dissatisfaction said to be growing

This week, the Campaign for Open Government released a report noting, among other things, that the number of FOI requests is declining. Despite a growing B.C. population and increased government spending, the number of general requests declined by 36 per cent between 2000 and 2005, to just 1,567 last year.

Yet, at the same time, the caseload of complaints made to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner grew, suggesting, notes the report, that the level of dissatisfaction is increasing.

The report relies on data from the government's infamous Corporate Record Tracking System (CRTS). In the past, various researchers, including me, had to ask to obtain any data from CRTS. That requirement is now reduced, thanks to some good news on the government information front.

First a little background. Two years ago, we learned that the government was using CRTS to monitor "sensitive" information-access requests.

Requests from news media, the opposition and other troublemakers were flagged as sensitive, using the system. If a request was for a document that might prove embarrassing, the minister was briefed on it, before the record was released.

The practice continues to this day.

Ministry communications officials, as well as the minister, have either read or been briefed on the contents of virtually every potentially embarrassing government record I've obtained under FOI since 2001.

But the good news is that sometime this summer, the government posted reams of CRTS data.

Want to know how many FOI requests from lawyers were abandoned in the second quarter of 2002-03? It's there. Curious about the number of requests received by the Finance Ministry in 1997-98? That, too. In all, there are dozens of pages of graphs and charts, though it does not include records concerning sensitive requests.

While not all CRTS data are posted, what is available includes the time to process information-access requests. In this category, anyone looking to the posted data for a day-and-night change for the worse since the Liberals took over in 2001 won't find it.

For instance, a frequent complaint from information-access requesters is the length of time it takes to obtain the records. (I am currently waiting on B.C. government records I first asked for more than a year ago, and it has taken me as long as two years to get some public records.)

According to the posted data, in 2005-06, slightly more than half of the requests received were processed within the normal 30-day time limit specified in the legislation.

That's an improvement from 2004-05, when, of the 1,931 requests received, 1,006 requests took more than 30 days. (The data doesn't distinguish between requests that were simply answered late, and those for which an extension was granted, as permitted under the legislation.)

In the last full year of the NDP government, it was even worse, when nearly three in five requests took longer than 30 days.

However, the situation is a little more complicated than it appears, since after April 29, 2002, an amendment to the legislation changed the meaning of "30 days" from "30 calendar days" to "30 business days."

Strangely, the government's posting of the records was done very quietly. No press release trumpeted the good news, and several information-access experts I spoke with were unaware of the posting, which I happened to stumble across while rambling through the government's website.

Who knew?

It was almost the same story with the government's proclamation of Right to Know Week, which was actually approved sometime this summer.

Even the underlying cabinet order, permitting such proclamations, was not passed at one of the government's much-touted, now-defunct "open cabinet" meetings.

Instead, the order was done at one of the real cabinet meetings, on October 11, 2002. At such meetings, of course, the proceedings are confidential, apart from the actual orders approved, called "orders-in-council."

The order in question granted the attorney general the power to make declarations, such as the "Right to Know Week" one.

Yet to this day, the government has issued no press release about this proud decision.

Last week's release telling us of the great occasion actually came from the independent Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which was the source of the idea for the proclamation in the first place.

Had it not been for that office's statement, we might never have known about it.

Is it possible that the Liberals might want to keep secret the fact that this is Right to Know Week?

To read the new report of the Campaign for Open Government titled "Access Denied: An analysis of the B.C. government's response to freedom of information requests, 2000 to 2006" go here.

Victoria-based Russ Francis is a veteran legislative reporter and a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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