Queen’s Park frugal with information, audit reveals
TheStar.com – news/canada
Published On Tue Sep 27 2011. Jim Rankin, Staff Reporter
Ontario’s freedom of information system slows when it is the media, opposition parties or interest groups making a request — resulting in queries being abandoned or withdrawn and the public’s right to know being thwarted.
This was the finding of an annual Newspapers Canada audit of the country’s freedom of information systems, which focused largely this year on how the provincial system in Ontario performed.
Ontario, it discovered, once again came in as solidly mediocre when compared to other provinces’ systems for responsiveness and level of disclosure.
The study found that requests in Ontario made by media and other groups that tend to hold government accountable were more likely to be flagged as contentious and take much longer than requests made for private reasons.
While nearly four out of five requests filed by businesses, individuals and lawyers were completed within 60 days, only one in two filed by “accountability” requesters — such as reporters, politicians, academics and special interest groups — was completed in that time.
“The numbers are unequivocal,” said Fred Vallance-Jones, an assistant journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax who wrote the report. “That’s a trend we see right across the data.”
Jones, with the help of students, examined electronic logs of 34,000 requests made to 15 Ontario ministries between 2008 and 2010 for information other than one’s own personal information.
Ontario requests made by groups that tend to hold government accountable were abandoned and withdrawn at higher rates than other requesters. The files are open for some time before “requesters give up in frustration, balk at fees, or otherwise abandon and withdraw requests,” said the report.
The Ontario logs show “contentious” media requests presented to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services had the longest median completion time before the requests were either abandoned or withdrawn.
Between 2008 and 2010, the average closing time for 24 such requests was 573.5 days, suggesting long battles that eventually went nowhere.
Contentious requests often trigger internal memos and media speaking notes, and whether deliberate or not, the upshot is delay, says Vallance-Jones. If and when the information eventually emerges, it may no longer be of interest.
“If you have an FOI system where people who are trying to do that job have to wait longer than other people to get the information, that’s frustrating the public’s right to know about important matters related to how they’re governed.”
The report’s release comes amid Right to Know Week: a global effort to highlight access to government information successes and failures and to promote it as a basic human right.
The countrywide study involved making requests for similar information from federal and provincial departments and ministries — such as requests for expenses, ministerial briefing notes and contracts — and then gauging response times and levels of disclosure.
Performance varied across Canada, due in part to a patchwork of laws in different jurisdictions. (Municipal, provincial and federal governments, as well as crown agencies and corporations, are subject to the laws.) Requests were classified as either being generic or topical, the latter almost always taking longer.
In one “topical” request, the in Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources was asked for passenger manifests for flights on the province’s executive aircraft in which Premier Dalton McGuinty approved the use.
The ministry requested a nominal fee of $14.40 for the records. When the records arrived, much had been deleted, including names, weights of passengers, any food served aboard and any crew information, such as where they may have stayed overnight.
The ministry cited safety concerns in denying access. It also has a policy of deleting names on manifests after six months. So anything in the past six months was redacted; after that, nothing existed.
“I don’t quite know what they’re saying there: that the premier was on an airplane three months ago endangers his life?” wondered Vallance-Jones.
Overall, Ontario received a “D” grade for completeness of disclosure.
Among the highlights and lowlights:
• Ontario was once again the most costly province in the audit. It had the highest proportion of requests in which a fee was demanded. It is also the only province that does not allow for a period of free search and preparation time.
While large fees are infrequent, they lead to a dramatic increase in abandoned requests. About one in 10 of all requests were abandoned or withdrawn. When fee estimates came in at $500 or more, requesters pulled the plug in more than half of those cases.
• Despite federal talk of making data more openly available, the audit found that some government departments continue to release data held electronically in a printout or image form that can’t be analyzed.
• British Columbia was singled out for delayed response times, mainly due to language that allows for a longer time to respond than other jurisdictions. It was, unsurprisingly, the slowest in the study. Nova Scotia, PEI and the Yukon were the fastest.
This year’s audit was the largest undertaken. A total of 354 requests on 40 topics were filed.
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