FOI: slow flow better than no flow

Reporters covering municipal politics might have an easier time with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests than their fellow scribes on the federal scene, but it’s probably not because local officials are inherently more open with information.
Rather, it usually comes down to process, according to Fred Vallance-Jones of the University of King’s College, in Halifax, where he teaches a course on investigative journalism. Simply put, there’s less of it on the municipal scene.
“Fewer people have their hands on it. There are fewer communications people. There aren’t any deputy ministers. There’s one line of authority, typically in municipalities – the city manager and the mayor.
“Information flows it little more freely at the municipal level, overall, I would say.”
It’s a different story at the federal level, says Vallance-Jones, whose latest FOI audit, being prepared for the Canadian Newspaper Association, is due out in May, in time for the Ink & Beyond conference.
“The federal level is almost paralyzed … there are long, long extensions, especially on requests that are at all contentious.”
While flawed, Vallance-Jones says it’s better to have a process that needs work, than have none at all.
“For the most part when we have asked for things from … municipalities where the province doesn’t cover municipalities, they just send us a polite letter that says, ‘thank you very much, but freedom of information does not apply to us. We won’t be able to help you. Have a nice day.’
“That shows that these acts, at the very least, do provide citizens with a real actionable right that they can use that takes them further ahead than they would be if there were no acts in place.”
The country is not ‘governed’ by one encompassing act, but rather a “patchwork quilt” covering a variety of jurisdictions. They all, however, have a similar intent.
“Essentially, the idea is the same. You have the right to access anything the government has, subject to limited and specific exemptions that are designed to protect the public interest.”
Exemptions include third-party information, such as business details provided in confidence, the government’s own “valuable information,” an individual’s personal information, and “big Mac Truck” clauses, such as advice to ministers.
There are three main reasons why the flow of information stalls, says Vallance-Jones.
“If the first factor is blatant interference, the second is processes put in place to make sure that the communications lines are created … layers of approval. The third reason would be just plain understaffing. I think that in Ottawa, especially, there is a real sense that the access offices just don’t have enough people to handle the volume.”
Despite its shortcomings, FOI is a system of fundamental importance to our democracy, says Vallance-Jones, who likened it to a used car with an odometer that’s on the high side.
“It’s starting to blow a few parts here and there. It will get you there, but you might have some repairs on the way.”

Vallance-Jones is leading a CNA/CCNA webinar on FOI, April 28. He says it will be a practical, hands-on session.

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