By Medicine Hat News Opinion on October 2, 2020.
This week has marked a significant event about the public’s right to know and access to information from governments.
In fact, 25 years ago Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act was proclaimed.
This FOIP process was intended to create more transparency and allow taxpayers to see exactly what contributed to decisions being made.
It is difficult to know just how genuine that proclamation was intended to be. Perhaps governments already had a strategy to handle it or it has created a bureaucracy simply due to the volume of requests.
The newsroom regularly hears from readers who suggest we FOIP a document to uncover something they believe would reveal some wrongdoing or a decision that was not in the best interests of the public.
Talk to people who have been journalists for decades and in the early days FOIP documents were relatively easy to access. It is different now.
When you submit a request under FOIP there is of course a fee to pay, and unless you know of a specific document you will need to request a range of documents hoping to find one key piece of information. There are even seminars for journalists to determine what documents to ask for, otherwise they could fail to request the one specific document required.
Make your request too broad and there is another trap.
There are journalists who will tell you of a FOIP response informing them that it would require copying 500 pages. A cheque for a vast sum of money is required to cover the cost of someone photocopying all those pages.
Delays are another issue.
There are time frames in place by when government must respond to your FOIP request. The first 30 days may only require an acknowledgement of the request. There may then be a letter to clarify the request and a delay of another few weeks. It could take six months to get the documents and even then the key bits of information may be redacted.
There is a well known story of a journalist making a request during an election campaign. The information being requested would have been crucial in that campaign. The document finally arrived a few days after the election was over. Whose to know if that was intentional or not?
There are reports now of government officials sometimes choosing to use sticky notes for communication rather than emails because those sticky notes can be destroyed and would never appear in a FOIP request.
So if we really want to celebrate the 25th anniversary of freedom of information perhaps we need to determine if it is meeting the intended purpose or is perhaps just a facade.