A report card on government’s access to information timelines
GOVERNMENT’S INFORMATION IS THE PUBLIC’S INFORMATION. More than a glib phrase, this principle was unanimously enshrined by BC’s legislature in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) more than 25 years ago. FIPPA gives each of us the right of access to a public body’s information within a prescribed time frame, subject to carefully prescribed exceptions.
To be meaningful, any access to information system must work in a timely way — access delayed is, in many cases, access denied. And any time an access response is outside the legislated timeline, government fails to respect the law.
For these reasons, my office has, for many years, conducted periodic assessments of the provincial government’s timeliness in responding to access requests. This report examines timeliness since the previous assessment released in September, 2017. This report uses the same point scoring system as past timeliness assessments to ensure valid comparisons. This report also applies other metrics, which offer further insights into government’s performance.
The positive news is that response times, as measured by government’s point scores of the last three years, are their highest since 2012/13. This is welcome. But it must not obscure what continues to be a blight on the access to information system and a threat to the public’s confidence in it: between April 1, 2017 and March 31, 2020, government took it upon themselves, in over 4,000 cases, to extend the response time for an access request without any legal right to do so.
Timeliness of access is a vitally important principle. Surely it should go without saying that respect for the law is even more important.
This untenable situation has spanned multiple governments over many years. My worry is that, over time, a culture of acceptance has grown around this issue, affecting government’s attitude toward the problem, and also, to be frank, the approach my office has taken. This must end.
To be clear, I acknowledge the rising volume of access requests, especially in the past two fiscal years, as illustrated in this report. The all-time highs for requests undoubtedly present challenges and I credit the dedicated public servants, particularly those in the Information Access Operations office, who work very hard to keep pace. The fact is, however, that the public service must have the resources necessary to keep pace with demand and to comply with the law.
Other tools exist that can improve the situation, so this report makes recommendations that could assist the work of the government’s access experts. Ministries must also prioritize proactive disclosure to ensure commonly sought records are more readily available. In addition, as noted in my s. 71 report published earlier this year, government must establish additional categories of records to make information more easily accessible. I also encourage access applicants to, wherever possible, try to ensure the scope of their requests accurately targets only the information they truly need.
In summary, while I am encouraged by the improvement in government’s response scores, I am deeply troubled by the large number of cases left unanswered within the time limits set out in FIPPA. This state of affairs cannot continue without bringing British Columbia’s access to information law into disrepute.
Michael McEvoy, Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia
Read the report:OIPC Timeliness Report.pdf