If there's one thing government bureaucracies are known for, it's keeping records. Meticulous, exhaustive records, made up of invoices, notifications, invitations, memos and forms in triplicate fill government warehouses around the world, including here in B.C.
Throw in new digital record-keeping and database technologies that automatically capture and log vast swaths of information, and you would think that today's government files would be full to the point of bursting.
When it comes to getting information out of the B.C. government, though, this data bounty dries up. According to recent research released by the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, our provincial government is failing to electronically post about 67 per cent of completed general FOI requests. This is despite their own stated policy of posting all completed requests, save for those deemed too sensitive for public release -- an exception that is to be applied only in "limited circumstances."
In response to these findings, government spokespeople have claimed that they "only" fail to post 43 per cent of general requests. Either way, that's a whole lot of non-disclosure for what is supposed to be "limited circumstances."
The full brain-numbing situation is outlined in detail in our recent complaint to Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
But something even more troubling turned up while we were looking at the government's posting performance. We found that 24 per cent of all general FOI requests filed with the government between July 2011 and July 2012 came back with no responsive records.
No responsive records? You mean to say there are no records -- none at all -- relevant to nearly a quarter of this province's general requests for information?
Forgive us if we find this difficult to believe.
Are FOI requests simply becoming too exotic and obscure? Are British Columbians suddenly asking for information about Sasquatch or Ogopogo? Or is there a bigger issue at hand -- a systemic, structural problem with the way the B.C. government is managing our information?
To cope with the mountains of data they now collect, our provincial leaders are increasingly stepping up commitments to various open data initiatives. But as Sarah Schacht, founder of Open Gov West, put it in a recent tweet, "Open data ≠ open government. Open documents, open information, open processes, open government cultures = open government."
Proactively posting completed FOI requests, reducing non-responsive rates, and sticking to the policies that protect the information rights of citizens are essential components of the processes and cultures that Schact is talking about. Unfortunately, our numbers suggest that it's precisely these processes and cultures that are being sidelined by the B.C. government.
FIPA still has some more numbers to crunch, so we'll be reporting back in the coming weeks with more detailed information on this troubling trend.