Victoria: The B.C. government has taken a step backward in providing timely responses to access to information requests under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, according to a special report issued today by Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
“This is my office’s fourth report examining government’s performance responding to access requests within the 30-business-day time limit set out in the legislation. In our last timeliness report card, government’s performance had improved to an average of 93% on time; over the past two years their performance has fallen to 74% on time.
“Government’s disappointing decline in timely responses to access to information requests frustrates individual applicants and erodes the public’s right to know,” said Denham.
The Commissioner’s report outlines the substantial and systemic issues contributing to government’s lagging performance on timeliness, including a 24% increase in the number of requests since 2011, staffing challenges in the Information Access Operations (IAO) office of the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services, and issues specific to the Ministry of Children and Family Development where on-time responses have plummeted from 99% to 52% over two fiscal years.
The report makes seven recommendations to address the underlying issues driving access to information requests and the challenges facing government in responding in a timely manner, including a recommendation that government proactively disclose calendar information of ministers and senior public officials.
“Calendar requests account for 75% of the increase in access requests over the past two fiscal years, and 18% of all access requests received by government. In past reports I have recommended that government proactively release calendar details as part of their commitment to open government. This report makes it clear that proactive disclosure of routinely requested calendars would result in significant administrative efficiencies that would reduce pressure on IAO staff, who processed almost 2,000 calendar requests this past fiscal year.” The Commissioner’s report also provides an important followup on the increasing number of ‘no responsive records’ replies to access requests made to the B.C. government.
“While the percentage of no responsive records responses has improved from 25% to 19%, I remain concerned about government’s records management practices and the deletion of emails that it considers transitory in nature. To address this issue, I recommend that government implement an email management system with respect to senior government officials to ensure these documents are preserved and archived,” said Denham.
Finally, the Commissioner’s report examined government’s issuance of fee estimates in response to access requests, to determine whether these estimates are being used as a means to deter applicants from pursuing a request. The report did not find evidence of such a practice, but instead found government to be working with applicants to narrow broad requests to focus on records of particular interest.
NDP reaction on the report
New Democrats said that British Columbians have a right to know what Premier Clark’s highly paid staff are doing with their time after a Freedom of Information (FOI) report showed they continue to deliberately delete emails to avoid public oversight.
The report, from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, examined FOIs asking for emails sent or received by senior-ranking B.C. Liberal government officials on a specific day or over two days. The Premier’s Office claimed that there were no records matching the request.
“It’s simply not plausible that not a single email of any public interest was sent by senior officials in the Premier Clark’s office over two days,” said New Democrat citizen’s services spokesperson Doug Routley.
Routley noted that the day the report came out, the Official Opposition received an entirely blanked out FOI back from the B.C. Liberal minister responsible for FOIs.
“As proof of just how secretive the Liberal government has become with hiding info and how little they’ve learned, on the same day the Privacy Commissioner released the report the Liberal government released a freedom of information request package with no information in it. An FOI on the problem-plagued computer systems that have already cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars was 100-per-cent redacted. Only the title remained,” said Routley.
“Citizens deserve to know what their government is up to. This kind of behavior is unacceptable.”
The report notes that “the Office of the Premier confirmed that at least some staff members regularly delete emails” and emphasized that “government has made little meaningful progress regarding a duty to document” since the Commissioner’s last report.
“Staff in the Premier’s Office were caught doing B.C. Liberal party dirty work on the taxpayer’s dime during the quick wins scandal. Today’s report shows that the same tactics that were used to hide dishonest activities during the quick wins scandal continue to be used today. We’ve gone from quick wins to quick wipes.”
Routley noted that another report from the Information and Privacy Commissioner found “acceptance and familiarity within government of the practice of evading freedom of information requests,” with one former minister, John Yap, admitting his Communications Director, Brian Bonney, was “routinely using personal email for his correspondence” in order “to avoid freedom of information legislation.”
“Given the ongoing and unresolved issues stemming from the quick wins scandal, Premier Clark’s staff should be working to restore public confidence, not doubling down on secrecy,” said Routley. “It’s unbelievable, for example, that the Premier’s Executive Director of Communications and Issues Management, Ben Chin, simply doesn’t keep a calendar. That’s unacceptable.”
The report recommends that the Premier’s Office implement a “capstone” or similar system that would prevent senior staff from deleting their emails. It also recommends proactive disclosure for calendars and other routinely requested information.
“Premier Clark says all the right things, then she does what she wants,” said Routley.
“If she was serious about running an open and accountable government, Premier Clark would commit to ending the dishonest games being played by her senior staff, and implement every recommendation in this report.”