07/04/2012 02:41 EDT | Updated 09/03/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. government releases tech contract after eight-year legal battle

VANCOUVER - The British Columbia government has begrudgingly released the unredacted version of a $300-million technology contract with IBM after spending more than $200,000 over nearly a decade fighting to keep the document hidden from the public.

The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association filed a freedom-of-information request for the contract after it was signed in December 2004, setting off a complex battle that spanned the careers of two premiers and nearly outlasted the agreement itself.

The Liberal government, which argued releasing the contract that covers computer support services would put the province's information systems at risk.

It suffered its latest loss last month when the B.C. Supreme Court upheld an order that the document must be released. Rather than appeal, the government posted the full, 535-page version of the agreement to its website this week.

The association's executive director, Vincent Gogolek, said the contract likely won't make it on most British Columbians' bedtime reading lists, but that the details of such agreements must be made public.

"If you're going to be transferring government services over to the private sector but still paying for them with public money, we should still be able to hold you accountable for that, and the minimum would be to get the terms under which these services would be provided," said Gogolek.

"It's a reflection of the culture of the government. The culture is, 'You can't have that,' and then they start looking around for reasons why not."

The 10-year contract expires in March 2015.

The provincial government and IBM have both made various arguments to explain why the contract should not be released in its entirety.

IBM argued sections of the contract would harm its financial interests if released, though the company's objections have since been resolved.

The government claimed information in the document could help hackers penetrate its systems, while also damaging the province's ability to negotiate in the future.

The province released a redacted version of the contract in 2010, with most of those redactions focusing on the names and physical locations of equipment and software, but the province's information and privacy commissioner ordered the government to release the contract with those details intact.

The province then asked the B.C. Supreme Court to intervene, but the court ruled last month that the government failed to prove any harm would come from releasing the full contract.

Gogolek said the case began when former premier Gordon Campbell was in office, but it continued even after Premier Christy Clark came to power promising a new era of openness and accountability.

"We've got an election coming up, people will have to look at the record of the government and this is part of that record," he said.

"We started fighting this under Gordon Campbell, and then the fight continued. It was hard to see a difference. We, or anybody else, shouldn't have to file (freedom-of-information requests) for this."

The dispute cost the provincial government and the privacy commissioner a combined total of more than $230,000.

Margaret MacDiarmid, minister of labour, citizens' services and open government, said the province was following the advice of bureaucrats, who genuinely believed releasing information about servers would put them at risk.

She said even today, the government believes the contract's release poses a small risk, although she said that has decreased over time because some of the servers and software listed in the initial contract are no longer in use.

"It's very unusual for our government to go to these lengths to resist releasing information," MacDiarmid said in an interview.

"However, I was advised that there was a security risk that I needed to pay attention to, and that's why we went to these lengths. ... In my position, I do think it's important that I listen to trusted public servants."

MacDiarmid said the government is taking steps to ensure contracts are released as a matter of routine. She noted a recent telecommunications contract with Telus (TSX:T) was posted to the government's website soon after it was signed —and before anyone filed a freedom-of-information request to obtain it.

"We understand why members of the public have an expectation that they would be able to look through those kinds of contracts and see if they think there was good value for money," said MacDiarmid.

"Our plan would be to actually have the contracts developed in such a way that there is not a security risk by us releasing the information. In the (IBM) contract, when we included the addresses of government servers, there's no reason to include that in the contract."

MacDiarmid promised that if the IBM contract is renewed, the written agreement will be publicly released voluntarily.

The province's information and privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, declined to comment on the specifics of the IBM case, but she pointed out her office has advocated governments simply release more information without first being asked.

"These kinds of contracts and these kinds of outsourcing agreements are frequently requested under freedom-of-information requests, and public agencies and the provincial government could promote greater accountability by making most contracts publicly and routinely available," Denham said in an interview.

"From our experience, seldom do the arguments (offered by governments to withhold information) actually meet the tests in the legislation."