2011 FOI Audit

A total refusal to release contracts in Winnipeg, Quebec’s denial of basic accountability information about top officials’ spending, passenger manifests for Ontario’s executive aircraft, and the federal government’s stubborn refusal to release data in a useful form are just some of the findings of the Newspapers Canada sixth annual National Freedom of Information Audit, which tests the openness of governments across the country.

The 2011 audit is the largest in the history of the project, with 354 requests on 40 topics sent to all three levels of government as well as to crown corporations and hospitals.At each level of government there were several identical requests. Institutions were not told they were being audited. The audit grades institutions on the speed and completeness of their responses.

“Because many of the requests were identical, the audit offers a unique comparison of different FOI handling across the country,” said Newspapers Canada chief executive officer John Hinds. “The audit shines a light on uneven practices that are not in line with the spirit of the legislation.”

The project was led by Fred Vallance-Jones, assistant professor of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. A student audit team submitted and tracked the requests from January to May 2011.

Audit highlights:

  • How your request for information is handled depends on where you live in Canada. Of the provinces/territories, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Yukon were the fastest responders, while B.C. was the slowest. Federal institutions completed 61 per cent of requests within 30 days, compared to 50 per cent the year before.
  • Ontario was a special focus this year, (part II of the report) receiving 64 requests (other provinces received 17 each, up from five last year). Also requests were filed to the top volume ministries and agencies for logs of all general records FOI requests filed since April 1, 2007. This allowed for the analysis of more than 30,000 requests. Media requests in Ontario accounted for only one per cent of the total but made up 23 per cent of the requests considered contentious. Ontario received a D grade for completeness of disclosure.
  • A request for a social media policy for employees resulted in Saskatoon, Yarmouth and Corner Brook all releasing their policies on the same day the request came in. Transport Canada and National Defence took two months each to complete processing of exactly the same request, and Environment Canada took three months before denying access to half of what it held.
  • In B.C., an unusual approach to request handling allowed requests that actually took 38 calendar days to complete went into the records books as being released in full in just 21 (or 15 working days as B.C. does the calculation).
  • The City of Winnipeg said contracts are confidential, while the nearby city of Brandon released a contract in full.
  • Municipalities in Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland earned an A for speedy disclosure while Nova Scotia municipalities received an F (although the provincial ministries earned an A)
  • For completeness, municipalities in Nova Scotia and the Yukon got an F, while the provincial level in Manitoba and Nova Scotia each earned an A.

Cities audited in 2011:

  • Alberta: Banff, Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge
  • BC: Nanaimo, Nelson, Vancouver, Victoria
  • Manitoba: Brandon, Stonewall, Winnipeg
  • New Brunswick: Fredericton, Moncton, Saint John
  • Newfoundland: Corner Brook, St. John’s
  • Nova Scotia: Bridgewater, Cape Breton, Halifax, Truro, Yarmouth
  • NWT: Yellowknife
  • Ontario: Cornwall, Hamilton, Ottawa, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Windsor
  • PEI: Charlottetown
  • Quebec: Laval, Montreal, Quebec, Sherbrooke
  • Saskatchewan: Moose Jaw, Regina, Saskatoon, Yorkton
  • Yukon: Whitehorse

Media coverage for the 2011: