Playing hide-and-seek with your information

A document that has the title, "A Step Backwards: Report Card on Government’s Access to Information Responses" doesn’t exactly inspire trust in the B.C. government’s commitment to transparency. In fact, it should, and does, trigger a lot of serious questions.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s report on how the B.C. government is (or more accurately, is not) fulfilling thousands of information requests every year paints a startling picture of delay tactics, obstruction and a serious lack of adherence to the basic principles of freedom of information.

The report says that on-time access to information requests in the past two years have dropped from 93 per cent to 74 per cent. The four government ministries with the lowest on-time rates were Justice (72 per cent), Energy and Mines (66 per cent), Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training (65 per cent) and Ministry of Children and Family Development (52 per cent). The differences in departmental numbers is informative, but what it tells us on a larger scale is that almost every department is trying to keep information hidden.

The media has always faced stonewalling bureaucrats and politicians who hide behind procedures and paperwork. It is government’s first line of defense when the media looks for information that could make the government look bad.

But nowadays, as the privacy commissioner said, "I’m concerned that it’s a trend and the issues are systemic. It’s the law and one-in-four requests are responded to outside of the legal limits, and I think that’s a serious problem for the public."

We agree. But is a wrist-slapping report going to stop the stonewalling? We think not. If the provincial government cared about its previous commitments to transparency, it would have laid down the law internally. It hasn’t.

We think it’s time to inflict the same deterrents on government ministries that they inflict on citizens: If they miss deadlines, fine them. And put the money towards school supplies.