British Columbia

Freedom-of-information requests coming up empty, B.C. group complains

A group that advocates for government transparency has filed a complaint with B.C.'s information commissioner, pointing to a significant increase in cases where the province responds to freedom-of-information requests by claiming it couldn't find any documents.

Minister responds that the number of requests is up sharply

The B.C. government is increasingly responding that it does not have documents sought in freedom-of-information requests, an advocacy group says. (Samuel J. Bufalini/CBC)

A group that advocates for government transparency has filed a complaint with B.C.'s information commissioner, pointing to a significant increase in cases where the province responds to freedom-of-information requests by claiming it couldn't find any documents.

The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association suggests the trend is either a reflection of a government that avoids keeping records to skirt the law or a sign the province isn't releasing all the information it could.

"We've seen examples where you'd expect records to exist and they don't exist," the association's executive director, Vincent Gogolek, said in an interview Thursday.

"The phenomenon is clear. The records are not coming out."

The group used data posted to the government's website to track cases in which the government determined it could not find any records to satisfy a freedom-of-information request.

The numbers indicate such cases accounted for nearly a quarter of all requests in 2011-2012, compared with less than half a per cent in 2002-2003.

For requests from the news media, that number jumps to 34 per cent, when there were no such cases in 2002-2003.

Gogolek wrote the province's information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, asking her to launch an investigation. Denham's office declined to comment but confirmed she had received the letter.

Number of requests up sharply

Last year, Premier Christy Clark promised a new era of accountability, saying her government would release more information without the need for freedom-of-information requests, distribute documents released through such requests through its website, and post a host of government data online.

On Thursday Citizens' Services Minister Ben Stewart repeated the government's previous claim that much of the increase in requests that do not generate records is due to requesters using a centralized online form to send the same request to multiple ministries.

He also noted the sheer volume of freedom-of-information requests has increased significantly. The government's own statistics show there were nearly 3,200 requests in 2011-2012, compared to roughly 1,900 a decade ago.

That trend increases the requests that don't produce any records, the government argues, because not every ministry has records on a particular topic.

"In a lot of cases, ministries don't have the information," he said in an interview.

Stewart rejected the suggestion from critics such as Gogolek that government officials may be avoiding putting things on paper to prevent such documents from then being released through freedom-of-information requests.

"Personally, I don't think government can operate that way," he said. "I think government is trying to make certain that information is published."

Deleted emails 

Provincial, federal and municipal governments across Canada each have freedom-of-information laws that allow anyone to request government documents, from internal reports and audits to communications between bureaucrats.

Such laws — and, more importantly, governments' willingness to live up to them — are a constant source of frustration among journalists, interest groups and opposition parties, who frequently complain governments take far too long to respond to such requests, cover documents they do release with sweeping redactions, and in some cases refuse to release any documents at all.

That is something that Ken Dobell, a deputy minister to former premier Gordon Campbell, once openly admitted, saying he avoided taking notes of meetings and quickly deleted emails to prevent them from being released.

The information commissioner has touched on this issue briefly in previous reports. Denham issues yearly report cards on the province's response to freedom-of-information requests.

In last year's report card, Denham highlighted a continued increase in requests that did not generated any records. The government offered an explanation, suggesting the centralized online form it introduced makes it easier to send the same freedom-of-information request to multiple ministries, even though not every ministry has records on a particular topic.

Gogolek said even if that's true, it doesn't explain the scale of the increase.

"I think the numbers are just too large to have that happen," he said.

Gogolek said his statistics show reporters who file freedom-of-information requests fare even worse, with 33.5 per cent of their requests turning up no records.

No notes found

Journalists who use the freedom-of-information system in the province don't have to look far to find examples of this.

For instance, The Canadian Press recently filed a request for all documents prepared for Premier Christy Clark and her staff either before or after a meeting she held with Alberta Premier Alison Redford in late July.

The two premiers met, unannounced, days before Clark outlined a dramatic change in her government's policy related to the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project, laying out five demands for her support, including greater economic compensation.

Yet a request for any records related to that meeting -- such as briefing notes, memos, agendas or meeting minutes -- turned up nothing.

"Although a thorough search was conducted, no records were located in response to your request," said a formal government response.

Gogolek pointed to a request his group filed several years ago for information related to a 33 per cent fare reduction at BC  Ferries, a former Crown corporation that operates the province's coastal ferry service.

The sale was initially proposed by then-premier Gordon Campbell and the association wanted documents related to that proposal, but their request didn't turn up anything of the sort.

After filing a formal complaint, the association received an explanation from Campbell's deputy minister at the time, Allan Seckel: "The 'proposal' ... was oral, hence why no records in relation to such a 'proposal' were located."