BC’s reporters and government don’t see eye-to-eye on the public’s “right to know.” Freedom of Information [FOI] has been in decline since the late-90s, reports a local non-profit group, with response-times slowing, citizen requests deteriorating, and funding to the FOI department evaporating. On September 29, 2006, the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), attempted to bridge the gap between government and the public in an all-day Freedom of Information Summit. During a mid-day session, three government representatives from administrations past and present exposed the roots of that divide.
Within minutes, it became clear that the line can’t be drawn between reporters and politicians. An audience member asked which party had dealt the greatest blows to FOI, inciting an onstage NDP – BC Liberal tug-o-war over who respected transparency more.
“There are actually groups out there that are well funded and will use FOI…for ideological and partisan purposes,” former Liberal Minister for Environment and Management Services Joyce Murray told the audience. Those “groups” were addressed in the FIPA analysis of government openness. Murray didn’t mention that the government flagged political parties’ information requests as “sensitive” 75 per cent of the time. “Sensitivity” is linked to slower response times and a 10 per cent increased likelihood that the government will refuse the request.
Former NDP Minister of Finance, and of Health, and of Education Paul Ramsey was quick to point out that secrecy had worsened under the Liberal government. Politicking continued throughout the question period, reinforcing the notion that political partisans will find the faults in their opponents’ policies in any way possible – FOI included.
But is a partisan use of FOI an abuse? One questioner asked why governments would want to hide their actions, presuming they had good explanations for all their decisions. Another suggested that the lack of transparency has costly and inefficient effects that nullify any savings the government makes by cutting the FOI budget. At the root of many questions was the notion that, since democratic government exists of the people to serve the people, secrecy should serve only to protect the people.
A reporter from Kamloops asked why the local forestry office staffers were forbidden to answer reporters’ questions about local occurrences. Under the current government, all information flows from Victoria. Judging by the cheers and applause the questioner received from the audience, many agree the flow is more like a trickle.
Mel Rothenburger, a third panelist, attempted to explain. He has been both journalist and politician, serving as Kamloops mayor in the years he took leave from editing the Kamloops Daily News. “FOI is terrifying to government,” he said. “It’s viewed not just as an annoyance, but as coming from the enemy.” While he notes that in hindsight it’s clear that “there’s no reason to withhold information,” he felt differently when first elected. “There’s a tendency to take [FOI requests] personally,” as if requesters are looking for dirt specifically on the elected officer.
Murray argued that there are reasons to withhold information, most notably, money. While freedom of information is important to some people, “there’s a reality of healthcare budget.” In other words, more pressing concerns are likely to receive more funding, and programs like FOI will suffer as a result of “practicalities.”
Murray took the field already playing catcher to Sierra Legal Defence lawyer Randy Christensen’s hardball pitch. Christensen had spoken earlier in the day about the Liberals’ decision to cut the BC corporate pollution registry. His FOI request for the information was delayed for two-and-a-half years and he was told the information would cost $170,000. The average public administration worker, according to BC Stats, makes just under $50,000 a year, meaning that compiling pollution data would take three to four employees a full year.
Murray had cut the registry. In explanation, she called it, “something that was not affordable, and according to what I was told, not actually a level playing field kind of data.” The registry was reinstated earlier this year.
The issue on hand was not whether the registry was affordable, but whether government was making a legitimate effort to use and empower it. Later in the day, a former special advisor on the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA), Murray Rankin spoke about “rethinking” FOI. Much of his talk focused on less successful elements of the 13-year-old law, with a special emphasis on court rulings that have limited the scope of FOI and government actions that have made information less accessible, including fees, delays, and government moves to privatize public services (like BC Ferries).
Depicting “how badly things have broken down,” he described the efforts his son had made to learn which neighborhoods were available for private lawn-cutting services. Government officials would not tell him (one even asked him why he wanted the information), and by the time the FOI request was processed, summer was half over, and his lawn-mowing opportunities were shot.
This was a case, not of government secrecy, but of the system’s outdatedness. Rankin pointed out that requests are still processed entirely in paper, though email would take minutes to travel from one government office to another – and spare the cost of postage. More importantly, though, it would bridge the gap between the citizens and journalists who seek timely access to information, and the government that has seemed so reticent to comply.
“We need a strong message from the government and policy people that this [FOI] matters,” Rankin said.