The high cost of freedom of information points to a broader problem with government record-keeping and accountability, transparency advocates and privacy watchdogs say.
Citizens have a right to details about issues such as the controversial Scarborough subway extension, but it potentially comes with a $ 31,948 price tag and three-year wait. That’s how much the TTC says it will cost to deliver Star city hall reporter Jennifer Pagliaro’s freedom of information (FOI) request.
Information about mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation, police carding, and toxic air in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley belongs to the public, regardless of the format it comes in. Access to information laws apply to government bodies ranging from federal departments and provincial ministries to school boards and libraries.
What it takes to get the results of a Freedom-of-Information request
“The public expects the government to be accountable and part of that accountability is being able to see the information that’s in the hands of the government,” Beamish said.
Beamish oversees FOI requests for most provincial and municipal public bodies and has the power to order a cost reduction if his office deems it unreasonable. His office said, at first blush, the magnitude of Pagliaro’s request appears “highly unusual.”
But it’s not rare for FOI fee estimates to run into the thousands of dollars. In Ontario, $ 5 buys you an application for records held at a certain government organization, which by law must be released within 30 days, unless the records don’t exist or fall under a special exemption. Or, staff can extend the deadline and charge a fee based on what they think it will cost to search for and prepare copies of the records in question.
Empowering Canada’s privacy commissioner’s would eliminate the perception that governments use poor record-keeping as an excuse to try to block access by charging huge fees or taking longer than the legislated 30-day timeline, said Duff Conacher, co-founder of advocacy group Democracy Watch .
“The information commissioner must be given the power to order government institutions to clean up their management of records so that they can be easily found and disclosed without excessive cost,” Conacher said.
Beamish has previously called on the government to reduce or eliminate some fees by charging less to unearth records, for instance, because high sticker prices can be “a barrier” to access. Ontario’s law comes with a handy pricing guide for photocopying (20 cents a page) and time spent digging up relevant documents ($ 30 per hour), but it’s mostly up to staff to determine the total cost.
“It shouldn’t be acceptable anymore to in effect take the position that our records management system is not particularly good so it’s going to cost us a lot of money to find your information,” Beamish said.
These days about 80 per cent of FOI requests in Ontario meet the legal time frame, which is an improvement over the roughly 47 per cent that did two decades ago, Beamish said. He said the numbers started improving when the commissioner started publicly disclosing compliance statistics.
“One would want to see 100 per cent given that that’s the legal requirement, but there is certainly more respect for that timeline than there has been in the past,” he said.
That said, Beamish’s latest annual report pointed out that between 2010 and 2015 staff at the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change deliberately changed FOI dates to make it look like requests were fulfilled within the 30-day limit. Ministry staff also extended timelines without justification. The findings led to a wider internal government audit and a promise to review and improve its tracking mechanism.
When people complain to privacy watchdogs, fees tend to drop, noted Mike Larsen, who heads up the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, an organization dedicated to improving access to government.
“This suggests to us that the fee estimates are meant to be a disincentive” and discourage people from participating in democracy, Larsen said.
A spokesperson for the Ontario’s Ministry of Government and Consumer Services said that only experienced employees who are up to speed on the topic conduct searches and must make a reasonable effort to locate relevant information.
“In practice these fees typically only recover a portion of the real costs associated with processing requests,” spokesperson May Nazar said in an email. “Given the extensive work sometimes required for public servants to complete a request, it is reasonable for the financial burden to be shared between government institutions and requesters.”
She added that Ontario’s fees haven’t been raised in 20 years.
Ottawa’s FOI system was given an “F” in a recent audit by News Media Canada for being “by far the slowest government organization.” The national media association also called the federal Liberals’ attempt to reform the privacy act (an election promise) “watered-down.” The changes fell short for many civil groups, journalists and even former federal privacy commissioner Suzanne Legault, because it failed to fully cover the PMO or minister’s offices — arguably the country’s top decision-makers.