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BC FOI Delays Hit Record Levels

The government said a $10 fee would speed responses. It hasn’t.

Andrew MacLeod 1 Feb 2024The Tyee

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at .

Two years after the British Columbia government introduced a new $10 application fee that was supposed to speed up access to information requests, the release of public records is slower than ever.

“I feel disappointed, to be frank,” said Michael McEvoy, B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner. The commissioner is an independent officer of the provincial legislature.

In a 26-page special report released Wednesday, “Review of Government’s performance in responding to access requests,” McEvoy found that the average number of business days public bodies take to answer requests has stretched to 85 days, the longest in the 13 years his office has been tracking performance.

That’s up from the 22 days it took on average for government bodies to respond to requests a decade ago, he said.

At that time, about three-quarters of information requests resulted in applicants getting what they wanted within the 30 business days that the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act legally allows.

Over the most recent three fiscal years only about half of requests received answers within the 30-day legal limit.

“We think government has some work there to improve,” said McEvoy, stressing that the statistics represent real people looking for real information about real issues. The time limits are not simply an administrative concern, he said.

In an age of misinformation and widespread distrust of governments, there’s an opportunity for public bodies to build trust by being more transparent and open with information, he said.

“I don’t think it’s deliberately slow,” he said of B.C.’s access to information system, noting that the government has taken some steps to improve it.

However, he added, there is a lot of built-in caution with officials wanting to avoid making mistakes about what they release and who carefully study responses, especially sensitive ones from the media, before signing off on them.

The report’s six recommendations to the government include regularly evaluating the FOI processes “to identify and correct any lags and provide written evaluation reports to the OIPC,” and “ensuring appropriate resources and strategies exist to manage FOI functions.”

McEvoy also asked the government to submit a plan to his office by the end of March about how it will “eliminate the accumulation of unlawfully delayed requests within two years and prevent requests from becoming unlawfully delayed.”

About eight per cent of requests take an excessively long time and slow down the whole system, he said. Putting resources into responding to them sooner, he added, would make the whole system quicker.

In 2021 the provincial government introduced a $10 application fee that critics said would discourage information requests and be a barrier to people gaining access to public records.

At the time, Citizens’ Services Minister Lisa Beare argued the fee and other changes the government was making would improve the system and make response times faster.

“We believe people should have access to government information in a timely manner,” Beare said then. “Through changes in this legislation we’re going to be able to provide access quicker to people.”

In 2022 McEvoy’s office reported that in the first six months the fee was in place the number of applications for information dropped, but the time to respond to them increased.

This week’s report showed the government’s time to respond to requests has gotten even longer.

“I think it’s fair to say the $10 fee has not sped up responses,” McEvoy said.

The fee led to a significant decline in the number of requests from political parties and from the media, he said.

Media requests in particular plummeted from 756 in 2021 to just 286 in the last fiscal year.

“That’s a pretty big drop,” McEvoy said, adding the fee is definitely having an impact and his office will continue to monitor it.

Beare was not available to comment Wednesday afternoon.

A spokesperson provided a statement on behalf of the ministry saying it “is committed to transparency and openness and providing people with the information they need in a timely way” and would review McEvoy’s recommendations.

The increase in average processing times was related to efforts made since 2021 to reduce the backlog of overdue requests, it said, noting the government continues to combat the backlog and this fiscal year is hiring eight new full-time employees who will be dedicated to the task.

The ministry has $7.7 million in new funding to improve FOI processes and systems in an effort to reduce the number of responses that exceed the legal time limit, it said.

The statement also said that while the number of requests has declined in recent years, they have increased in complexity and volume. Last year the government processed 2.5 million pages through its FOI system, a 28-per-cent increase from a year earlier.

“We know there is more work to be done,” it said, “which is why we will be reviewing this report in the days to come and will have more to say soon.”

McEvoy’s six-year term as commissioner ends on March 31 and a B.C. legislative committee is working on hiring his successor.

Before McEvoy finishes his term, he said, he is working to complete significant reports on the social media site TikTok and artificial intelligence research organization OpenAI.  [Tyee]

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