Freedom of information - not in BC


On a Tuesday morning last November, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and Alberta Premier Alison Redford emerged from a meeting to announce a framework for energy projects straddling their provinces, patching up what had become a very public dispute over the fate of pipelines to the West Coast.

It was a significant announcement about an issue that had consumed BC politics — the sort of development that might involve, perhaps, writing something down.

But a freedom-of-information request asking for documents prepared for Clark before or after, such as briefing notes to prepare the premier or meeting minutes to record what had been said, turned up nothing.

"Although a thorough search was conducted, no records were located in response to your request," said a letter from the centralized government department that handles BC's freedom-of-information requests.

Such letters are common in BC.

An analysis by The Canadian Press of thousands of freedom-of-information requests indicates 20 per cent of all requests for non-personal information end with no records located.

Those figures represent an improvement from a year ago, when the province's privacy watchdog said an increase in such responses was a symptom of a government that wasn't writing things down. The non-responsive rate had reached 25 per cent overall and 45 per cent in the premier's office.

But the proportion of requests that result in no records is still higher than it was just a few years earlier, and observers say it appears a key tool to hold the government accountable still isn't working as it should.

"The decisions of government, they affect people's lives and they also affect very large amounts of public money," said Vincent Gogolek of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, a group that advocates for open government.

"That's how we keep people accountable. They get to make a decision and we get to look at it and say, 'How did they come to that decision?'"

Gogolek said the apparent decrease in non-responsive requests is encouraging but it's too early to say whether it represents real change or a temporary blip.

The Canadian Press examined a database that includes every request made to government ministries completed between April 2010 and Dec. 31 of last year. Requests for personal information were removed and the remaining requests were divided up by fiscal year, which means the 2013-2014 figures include the first three fiscal quarters.

The proportion of requests for which no records are found was 20 per cent for the current fiscal year, as of Dec. 31. In 2012-2013, it was 26 per cent; in 2011-2012, it was 25 per cent.

In the premier's office, the figure for the current fiscal year is 27 per cent. In 2012-2013, it was 42 per cent, and a year earlier, 45 per cent.


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