B.C. government dodging transparency, says watchdog

Published in 24 Hours Vancouver | March 10, 2014 | Circulation: 280,000+

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B.C. is dodging freedom-of-information requests by mislabelling some records as “transitory,” a government watchdog says.

The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association alleges the government is destroying important documents under the pretext they are only “of temporary usefulness.” It says little progress has been made since a scathing report by the information commissioner in March 2013.

“They’re getting rid of these records,” FIPA executive director Vincent Gogolek said. “If it’s transitory, they don’t even have to keep a copy. They seem to think it means whatever they believe it means.”

Under B.C. laws, “transitory” records may be deleted if they are “of temporary usefulness that are needed only for a limited period of time in order to complete a routine action or prepare an ongoing record.”

The allegation follows reports of only slight improvements since the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s 2013 report criticizing the province, warning that 25% of public record requests got no response — up to 45% in the premier’s office. On Sunday, the Canadian Press reported the government’s response rate had only improved by 5% since, numbers still double what they were five years ago.

Gogolek said it represents an increasing “oral culture” in government, and reliance on the “transitory” exception.

“They can say, ‘We looked for it but it was put in the shredder; it doesn’t exist anymore,’” Gogolek said. “We won’t know why billion-dollar decisions are being taken if no one’s written anything down.”

The high numbers “can in part be explained by the centralization of the system in 2009 and the greater ease with which applicants can make requests to multiple ministries,” said Andrew Wilkinson, minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services, in an email, adding that “public servants are required to abide by those rules as set out in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and ensure government records are managed in accordance with the Document Disposal Act.”

Media lawyer Dan Burnett told 24 hours that reliance on the transitory exception is “disheartening,” especially since it could be “seized upon as a way of avoiding” the spirit of the law.

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