Report author says no fees should be charged for info requests
The provincial government and the City of St. John’s both received good grades in Newspapers Canada’s latest Freedom of Information (FOI) Audit when it came to responsiveness, but the document also highlighted some concerns over the handling of certain requests.
The eighth-annual audit gave St. John’s an A for how quickly requests for information were processed — five days on average based on eight requests filed with the city. That tied it with other municipalities for the best result.
Newfoundland and Labrador received a B for taking an average of 22 days to process requests, tying it for third among Canadian provinces and territories.
According to report author Fred Vallance-Jones, an associate professor of journalism at the University of King’s College, that data doesn’t necessarily tell the full story.
“It’s easy to be fast sometimes when you’re saying, ‘No,’ or you’re not giving any records, so as a broad principle, that is often the case. The ones that are fast are not necessarily the ones that are giving the best service.”
In the case of the City of St. John’s, two of the eight requests were denied, one required payment of a fee estimate and two others were classified as “no records.”
One of those cases considered to involve no records initially had a fee estimate attached. When those working on the report requested electronic records of building deficiency orders, they were told it would cost $62,500 to enter 10,000 files into a spreadsheet.
It was suggested in the report a fee like that might not stand up to the scrutiny of a formal review and could ultimately be considered arbitrary.
“$62,500 — that’s a lot of money,” said Vallance-Jones. “That’s probably a mid-level public servant’s salary for a year. Enough to buy a very nice luxury car. Sometimes one needs to question how they come up with these kinds of numbers. Is a public servant really going to spend an entire year sitting down processing this request for information, every day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year — except for vacation? It seems unlikely to me.”
If he had his way, governments would be prohibited from charging such fees for access to information requests.
“I think all fees should be eliminated,” said Vallance-Jones. “I think that fees raise ultimately little money for government.”
St. John’s received a B for the completeness of its disclosure (tied for second amongst municipalities), while the Newfoundland and Labrador government received a C (tied for third amongst provinces and territories).
Sixteen requests were filed with government departments and agencies in Newfoundland and Labrador. Eight were released in full, three were denied and one partially, two required payment of fee estimates, and two came back with “no records.”
Steve Kent, the minister responsible for the Office of Public Engagement, noted that only 23 of the 285 access requests for 2012-13 involved fee estimates. Ten of those estimates were paid.
“Some of the requests that were received as a result of this audit I understand were very substantial and complex, and if that’s the case, there is sometimes a charge for that time.”
Briefing notes from the premier’s office prepared for summer meetings of the Canadian premiers in 2012 and 2013 involved a fee estimate of $982. The Department of Justice said it would cost $862 to cover search and preparation time to compile inmate complaints at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s.
“We do have a number of hours of free time at the beginning for each request, but when a request is really broad, a significant amount of search time is required to make sure that all the information requested is captured,” said Kent.
He noted Newfoundland and Labrador has the lowest hourly rate in Canada for processing access to information requests. He also claimed the province provides more free hours of search time than any other Canadian jurisdiction.
Kent said he was ultimately pleased with the findings of the report.
“Obviously we can always strive to do better, and we will,” he said. “I think some of the efforts we’re taking through our Open Government initiative will, hopefully, inspire departments and agencies to strive to do better.”
Kent also expressed optimism about the work of the committee reviewing the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Committee chairman Clyde Wells previously told media the committee hopes to have a report ready for the public by mid-to-late fall.
Vallance-Jones hopes that review will lead to a rollback of at least some of the changes introduced to the act under Bill 29 in 2012.
“Right now, a lot of these acts, I think they spend so much time figuring out all the ways they can say ‘No’ to you. They lose sight of the foundational principles of these pieces of legislation, which is that these acts are supposed to give the public a right to see all of the information the public has paid for.”