Provincial Variation Apparent in Canadian FOIA Audit

27 September 2011

Response time to freedom of information varies among the Canadian provinces, according to the latest version of The National Freedom of Information Audit, sponsored by Newspapers Canada.

Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Yukon were the fastest responders, while British Columbia was the slowest, according to the report, which includes A-F grades along with “bricks” and “laurels.”.

Federal institutions turned in “one of the worst performances” – completing 61 percent of requests within 30 days, compared to 50 percent the year before.

From January to May 2011, 354 requests were sent to 11 federal departments and agencies; five provincial departments, 39 municipalities and 10 major hospitals, and the responses tracked. Requests were for information on such things as social media policies, communications budgets, details of contracts and credit card expenses. Governments were tested both for the speed and completeness of disclosure.

“The results also show that some governments are far more transparent than others, especially on how money is spent with private contractors,” according to the report. “For example, Winnipeg said contracts were confidential and off limits. There were also wide variations in willingness to release credit card statements or travel claims of senior officials.”R

10 Recommendations

The report makes 10 recommendations for improvement and greater openness:

1. Companies that do business with government should be notified when the contracts are let that contracts are subject to release under access legislation. There should be no need to consult with contractors before releasing agreed contract details to the public.

2. Federal officials should heed the government’s call for open data, and release data electronically rather than converting to unreadable image files or providing printouts.

3. Officials should avoid asking for clarification by letter mail unless no other means of communication has been provided. Clarifications sent my mail create unnecessary delay in a process than can already be protracted for requesters.

4. Officials should avoid charging fees of less than $50. Fees add an extra step to the access process, making it less user-friendly and more bureaucratic. The staff time required to calculate small fees, as well as the administrative costs of processing payments, may approach or exceed the amounts collected in many cases.

5. In a situation where third party interests may apply to part of a record, where practical, the remainder of the records should be released while notification and appeal procedures run their course on the portion in question. Where acts provide for appeals by third parties of disclosure decisions, strict timelines should be introduced to ensure such appeals are dealt with quickly.

6. In instances where large quantities of paper are involved, alternative means to release than photocopies should be offered, to cut costs to applicants.

7. While efforts to provide information informally should be encouraged, this should be done with full explanation to the requester, both of the information being provided and of the rights of the requester with regard to the original request should the requester agree to an informal conclusion to the request. Ambiguous, ill-explained communications should be avoided.

8. Officials should avoid using extra-legal procedures, such as asking requesters to withdraw requests and redirect them, when a legal procedure exists and could be used. This will ensure that all applicants’ rights, such as the right to ask for a review or a transfer, are preserved.

9. B.C. should give serious consideration to restoring the 30-calendar-day response period to bring itself back in line with established practice in the rest of Canada.

10. Government institutions need to ensure internal processes do not introduce unnecessary delays. For example, once officials believe it may be best to transfer a request to a department or ministry better suited to respond, that decision should be taken quickly to facilitate faster release to applicants.

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