The British Columbia government routinely undermines the rights of its citizens by delaying requests for information, says a report by the information and privacy commissioner.
The extension of timelines by the government for responses to access to information requests is being done without legal authority and could impair the public’s trust in the system, Michael McEvoy said.
“Government has chosen to ignore the rules,” he said in an interview. “They’ve chosen to ignore the law and they simply extended the time period themselves. It’s going to result in the public losing confidence in the system if it continues.”
B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act sets 30 business days for the government to respond to information requests, which can be extended another 30 days, but extensions past that need approval from the commissioner.
“When they take more than 60 days, they need to have a good reason for that and they need to come to our office for permission to extend the time period beyond 60 days,” he said.
The report examined the government’s timeliness on access requests from April 2017 to March 2020.
McEvoy said his office reviewed 4,000 cases where the government extended the time for response without the legal right under the privacy act.
“We can only hold our governments accountable if we can understand what they are doing,” he said. “The only way we can understand, or one of the main ways we can understand what they are doing, is through access to information requests. The system has to be strong and it has to be responsive.”
The report recommends:
- An increase in the monitoring of time extensions.
- Expanding efforts to publicly release more information and records.
- Giving bureaucrats more authority to sign off on information requests.
- Exploring the use of automation services to release records.
McEvoy said the report acknowledges there has been an increase in requests for information, but that doesn’t absolve the government from its legal requirement to provide timely information. He said the report found some positive results related to improving request response times since September 2017.
Citizens’ Services Minister Anne Kang, who is responsible for government information services, said in a statement that progress is being made in fulfilling access to information requests.
“This effort is critical, as many people depend on freedom of information, including business owners, lawyers, academics, members of the media and professionals in the non-profit sector,” said Kang. “I am proud to see our rate of compliance during the period covered in this report is the highest it’s been in years, even though we received 40 per cent more requests during the same time period.”
She said the government completed 10,706 access to information requests on time in 2019-20.
McEvoy said the problem has spanned different governments.
“It’s really important that the culture change,” he said. “It’s not acceptable and undermines public confidence in the system where government is not respecting the rules that have been set out in law.”
The full report is available online: https://www.oipc.bc.ca/reports/special-reports/
This article by Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2020.