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Freedom of Information Seriously Suffered Under BC Liberals’ Last Years: Report

By Andrew MacLeod for The Tyee.

For two years leading up to the May election, the government of British Columbia regularly broke its own law for responding to freedom of information requests, a report from the province’s information and privacy commissioner found.

“Overall, I am frustrated to see that government routinely operates in contravention of B.C. law,” acting commissioner Drew McArthur wrote in Timing is Everything: Report Card on Government's Access to Information Responses.

The report examined responses made during the two-year period that ended March 31. It found that in one out of five cases, the government failed to meet the deadlines for responding that are legislated in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

“I cannot consider an 80 per cent success rate to be satisfactory,” McArthur wrote. “The government needs to accelerate its recent progress in improving timeliness toward the goal of total compliance.”

The poor response rate was despite a 75 per cent increase in the number of requests made to his office for extensions, he said. “Time extensions under FIPPA are intended to be the exception rather than the norm, as each extension delays providing results to the applicant. Ministers need to prioritize responses to access to information requests.”

The law requires responses within 30 business days, though it allows public bodies to request extensions in some circumstances. In 2016-17, the report said, the government completed responses to 9,857 access to information requests. On average, it took 46 days to respond to requests, and those that were late were past due by an average of 62 days, it said.

“Government continues to contravene its statutory obligations,” the report said. “The results also show a decline in government’s performance from earlier this decade when the on-time response rate hovered around 90 per cent for over [four] years.”

Recommendations included proactively disclosing more records, providing more resources to close overdue files and that “Government must take whatever action necessary to respond to access requests within the timelines allowed by FIPPA.”

“We’ll be looking at the recommendations and of course we take them very seriously,” said Jinny Sims, the minister of citizens’ services.

“For 16 long years, under the BC Liberals, we saw government becoming more opaque, a government of triple deletes and a government of win at all costs,” Sims said.

The government, which took office on July 18, has begun consultation on the issue, but won’t rush the review of a law that applies to some 2,800 organizations, she said. “We want to make sure we get this right so that British Columbians can have a government that’s open, transparent, accountable and they get the information in a timely manner, while at the same time balancing the absolute necessity to protect privacy.”

Sims said the compliance rate has risen to 91 per cent since the NDP took office. “That’s a huge progress that’s been made in this very short time,” she said, attributing the improvement to: “Having targets, having people focused, and maybe people seeing there’s a change in government and there is a need to expedite things.”

In an emailed statement, BC Liberal citizens’ services critic Steve Thomson said the “report shows some progress made in improving response times but is also clear that more work needs to be done.”

Image: Former Premier Christy Clark during the 2017 swearing-in ceremony. That didn't last long. Photo: Province of B.C. via Flickr

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