Federal performance poor in Freedom of Information audit

TORONTO– May 12, 2010 – Want to know how much British Columbia’s Ministry of Transportation spent on cell phones recently? That information will cost you $98,603.

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National Freedom of Information Audit 2009 – 2010 (PDF)

That was one of the findings in the 2009-2010 National Freedom of Information Audit, released today by the Canadian Newspaper Association (CNA). The annual exercise tests how readily officials disclose information that should be publicly available on request. Click the link to the right to download the National Freedom of Information Audit 2009-2010.

Freedom of information is vital in a modern democracy.  Citizens are increasingly asking for greater information transparency from government institutions,” said CNA President and CEO John Hinds. “This year’s audit shows us that the system in Canada continues to be under strain, especially at the federal level. The concept of freedom of information has been eroded.  Many times the Access to Information Act is used to limit what governments release to what they ‘have to’ release.”

The fifth annual audit has been expanded by more than 40 per cent this year to increase participation from smaller municipalities and include universities for the first time. The good news is that almost three-quarters of requests were responded to within the legislation’s 30-day deadline. The bad news is that auditors encountered inconsistent responses, including high fees for information and employees making up their own rules.

Audit Highlights:

  • Five municipalities (Banff, Cornwall, Brandon, Nelson and Windsor) earned A+ grades for disclosure.
  • Overall response rate within the 30 days mandated by the legislation increased to 72 per cent (from 63 per cent in the 2008 audit, although the addition of more municipalities contributed to the improvement).
  • Federal institutions are processing their FOI requests at a slower rate than their provincial and municipal counterparts. Only 50 per cent of requests received responses within 30 days. Eight out of nine processing time extensions of 60 days or longer came from federal departments.
  • The B.C. Ministry of Transportation asked for $98,603, the highest fee request in the audit, to release cell phone records ($19,712 for photocopying and $78,750 to locate, retrieve and produce the records).
  • Only eight per cent of requests for information in electronic spreadsheet format were granted in full. Many public officials in Canada seem to be struggling with the idea of releasing electronic information, stuck in an era when photocopying was state-of-the-art technology.
  • Almost every university, with the sole exception of the University of Toronto, blacked out the key financial information in the food and beverage contracts, citing third-party confidentiality, or refused to release the contracts at all.
  • New Brunswick’s new Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act is expected to come into effect later this year, and it will include municipalities. But even though they will be formally covered by access legislation within months, Saint John and Fredericton refused to respond to audit requests while Moncton promised a response, but none came. Meanwhile Charlottetown (also not covered by PEI legislation) released all information within 30 days, earning it a B+ grade.
  • CBC issued a fee