B.C.'s privacy commissioner has raised serious concerns about how the slow pace of the provincial government's responses to requests for information is undermining citizens’ rights to information.
The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) released a report card on September 2 of the provincial government’s performance in responding to access requests from April 1, 2017, to March 31, 2020.
The report found that government’s overall responses to requests have generally improved since the last report was released in September 2017, and that some recommendations from that previous report have been implemented as well.
B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy stated that the number of access requests has increased to record levels, particularly over the past two fiscal years. According to the report, the number of requests has risen from about 8,000 in 2010-2011 to 13,000 in 2019-2020.
In addition, the report found that the percentage of requests responded to within 30 days (decreasing from 73 percent in 2012-2013 to 55 percent in 2019-2020) and 60 days (down from 90 percent in 2012-2013 to 77 percent in 2019-2020) have sunk to their lowest levels. Consequently, a growing number of requests are being responded to beyond 60 days.
The average processing time rose to a decade high of 49 days in 2019-2020.
“The fact is, however, that the public service must have the resources necessary to keep pace with demand and to comply with the law,” he stated in the report.
While the government responded to 83 percent of cases on time in 2019-2020 (down from 93 percent in 2010-2011), McEvoy pointed out in a news release that the government extended response times without the legal right to do so.
Analysts also found that the government did not obtain permission from the OIPC to respond beyond the 60-day response time requirement in 4,000 cases.
The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) establishes 30 business days as the standard for responses. Under specific circumstances, the government can extend the response time by an additional 30 days. Any further extensions beyond that require approval from the OIPC.
He called this “a blight on the access to information system and a threat to the public’s confidence in it”.
While he said that this is nothing new, as past reports have shown, he expressed concern that in the “acceleration in the number of files that exceed legislated timelines”, and added that it “damages the integrity of B.C.'s access to information law”.
“The timeline provisions in FIPPA are not suggestions—they are legal obligations,” McEvoy stated in a news release.
He added that violations of these legislated provisions can no longer be accepted as the norm.
“My worry is that, over time, a culture of acceptance has grown around this issue, affecting government’s attitude toward the problem, and also, to be frank, the approach my office has taken,” he said in the report. “This must end.”
The report provides recommendations for improving response times to requests, including proactively disclosing records that are commonly sought, expanding presumptive sign-off policies, and considering automation for processing records.