Freedom of information requests by journalists and “interest groups” tend to take longer to process than other requests. Governments are still responding to many requests for data with printouts or image files that can’t be manipulated with spreadsheets or other software. City contracts are confidential in Winnipeg.

Those are some of the findings of the 2011 Freedom of Information Audit, conducted for Newspapers Canada by Fred Vallance-Jones, assistant professor of journalism at University of King’s College in Halifax.

Freedom of information requests by journalists and “interest groups” tend to take longer to process than other requests. Governments are still responding to many requests for data with printouts or image files that can’t be manipulated with spreadsheets or other software. City contracts are confidential in Winnipeg.

Those are some of the findings of the 2011 Freedom of Information Audit, conducted for Newspapers Canada by Fred Vallance-Jones, assistant professor of journalism at University of King’s College in Halifax.

To conduct the audit, a group of King’s journalism students submitted 354 information requests on 40 topics to the federal government, all the provinces, selected cities, crown corporations and hospitals.

“It’s antiquated. It’s difficult to use,” Vallance-Jones said of Canada’s federal and provincial freedom of information legislation in a teleconference announcing the audit’s results Tuesday morning. Even journalists and academics – those who file the most requests – find the process frustrating, he said, meaning it must be even more so for the ordinary citizen seeking information about his or her government.

Vallance-Jones also noted, however, that requests from the media and from “interest groups” that seek to hold governments to account on certain issues are more likely to be seen as contentious and thus take longer to process. The auditors asked the Ontario government for a log of all general freedom of information requests filed since April 2007, and analyzed the record of more than 30,000 requests. They found that media requests accounted for only one per cent of the total but made up 23 per cent of the requests  considered contentious.

The audit graded the federal and provincial governments on the speed with which they handled requests and the degree of disclosure. It also gave grades by province for municipal handling of requests.

The federal government got a D for speed and a C for completeness of disclosure.

On speed of disclosure, A grades went to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Yukon, and B grades to Alberta, Newfoundland and Ontario. Saskatchewan got a C, Manitoba a D, and New Brunswick and British Columbia each an F.

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All the provinces aim to fulfill requests within 30 days, but British Columbia defines this as working days while all the others use calendar days. British Columbia answered only 13 per cent of requests within 30 days, the audit said. New Brunswick, with the next worst record, answered 44 per cent in 30 days, while Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Yukon all managed 100 per cent.

For completeness of disclosure, Manitoba and Nova Scotia got As. B was the most common grade, going to  Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan. New Brunswick got a C, Ontario a D, Quebec an F. The audit didn’t grade Prince Edward Island or Yukon due to insufficient data.

Interestingly, while Nova Scotia’s provincial government did well in the audit, its municipalities earned failing grades on both speed and completeness of disclosure.

In an era when parsing electronic data is an important way of uncovering stories, a government tendency to release data in forms that can’t be manipulated electronically – such as paper printouts or image PDF files rather than spreadsheet or database files – continues to be a sore point.

“We live in a world of data and information,” Vallance-Jones said, “and government still wants to force the 1980s on us.”

Asked if the audit has an impact on government handling of information requests, Vallance-Jones said there have been some small changes in response to specific findings. For instance, British Columbia began vetting fees for fulfilling requests after last year’s audit drew attention to an attempt to charge a $98,000 fee for information about cell phones issued to Transportation Ministry employees.

But John Hinds, chief executive of Newspapers Canada, said the fundamentals aren’t changing. “After the audit comes out we get platitudes,” he said. “We haven’t seen any real change, particularly at the federal level.”

 

Grant Buckler is a retired freelance journalist and a volunteer with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and lives in Kingston, Ont.