I’ve been reading news reports about municipal councils concerned about the cost of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. I wrote about the Integrity Commissioner process before and although FOI appeals are already handled by a central office, the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC), there are changes that could be made to help both situations.
North Bay city council is pushing for reforms, as reported in BayToday: Harassment of municipal staff, ‘frivolous, vexatious’ requests top reasons for FOI reform June 18, 2021.
I have made a few FOI requests and in a couple of them I wondered why I was being forced into the process instead of simply releasing the requested reports. In one case, the CAO made the point that the staff is very busy and cannot be responding to every request that comes in. Therefore, the FOI process was in place to ensure that the staff was not unduly strained by requests for information.
Now … I’m no managerial genius, but if five minutes for your clerk to forward a request to a department head, who needs 10 minutes to find the reports and email them, is straining your workforce, you might be running a little too close to the line.
… a little too close to the line
The other point is, that when a council makes grand plans to increase transparency and looks to find ways to engage with the residents, keeping a tight rein on public information seems a tad counter-productive.
Then, in order to really frustrate the resident trying to engage that transparent council, the next trick is to warn there may be a fee for the information and then take 30 days to advise them how much that is.
If you wait to see how much you have to pay, as you seek information to file an appeal, you run afoul of the 30 day time limit to appeal the decision. The clock starts when you were advised of the decision … not the amount of the fee.
The point I’m making is that it’s not necessarily the person seeking information that is making it difficult.
Of course, appealing a decision right now is not a speedy process either…the COVID caused backlog of cases has the IPC office dedicating special resources to clearing it, but there are still significant delays in getting a resolution.
Some municipal councils are quick to declare those pesky residents to be frivolous and vexatious.
Pesky, frivolous and vexatious residents
It would be nice if we could go back to the good old days when we didn’t have to worry about what people think.
The system as it is, though, is flawed and actually discourages requests. Adding costs and tighter parameters can only reduce participation further, which, coincidently keeps a tight cork in the information flow.
Creating additional restrictions flies in the face of a more open and transparent government, because truth creates dialogue which stimulates change toward better government.
Maybe instead of looking for ways to reduce the cost and squeeze the flow of information, council should look for ways to open it up. Develop policies that clearly state what information gets to the website and how it should be formatted.
Posting volumes of information online, as an example, without structured organization, acts as a deterrent. Search engines only work if archive entries are tagged with a specific term that will bring the needed information to the surface.
We all agree open and transparent government is what we are striving for, but it takes open and transparent data to get there.
Phil Koning worked at the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission for his career, in a number of positions, from front line supervisor to union leader. After retirement in 2011, he continued his interest in government policy and uses social media to stay active in political discussions.