03/09/2014 05:05 EDT | Updated 05/09/2014 05:59 EDT

B.C. Freedom Of Information Requests Still Often Find No Records

VANCOUVER - On a Tuesday morning last November, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and Alberta Premier Alison Redford emerged from a meeting to announce a framework for energy projects straddling their provinces, patching up what had become a very public dispute over the fate of pipelines to the West Coast.

It was a significant announcement about an issue that had consumed B.C. politics — the sort of development that might involve, perhaps, writing something down.

But a freedom-of-information request asking for documents prepared for Clark before or after, such as briefing notes to prepare the premier or meeting minutes to record what had been said, turned up nothing.

"Although a thorough search was conducted, no records were located in response to your request," said a letter from the centralized government department that handles B.C.'s freedom-of-information requests.

Such letters are common in B.C.

An analysis by The Canadian Press of thousands of freedom-of-information requests indicates 20 per cent of all requests for non-personal information end with no records located.

Those figures represent an improvement from a year ago, when the province's privacy watchdog said an increase in such responses was a symptom of a government that wasn't writing things down. The non-responsive rate had reached 25 per cent overall and 45 per cent in the premier's office.

But the proportion of requests that result in no records is still higher than it was just a few years earlier, and observers say it appears a key tool to hold the government accountable still isn't working as it should.

"The decisions of government, they affect people's lives and they also affect very large amounts of public money," said Vincent Gogolek of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, a group that advocates for open government.

"That's how we keep people accountable. They get to make a decision and we get to look at it and say, 'How did they come to that decision?'"

Gogolek said the apparent decrease in non-responsive requests is encouraging but it's too early to say whether it represents real change or a temporary blip.

The Canadian Press examined a database that includes every request made to government ministries completed between April 2010 and Dec. 31 of last year. Requests for personal information were removed and the remaining requests were divided up by fiscal year, which means the 2013-2014 figures include the first three fiscal quarters.

The proportion of requests for which no records are found was 20 per cent for the current fiscal year, as of Dec. 31. In 2012-2013, it was 26 per cent; in 2011-2012, it was 25 per cent.

In the premier's office, the figure for the current fiscal year is 27 per cent. In 2012-2013, it was 42 per cent, and a year earlier, 45 per cent.

In March 2013, privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham released a report that identified what she described as a troubling increase in non-responsive requests, which had been as low as 13 per cent in 2008-2009, still far below the current rate. At the time, she said the statistics pointed to an "oral government" that was avoiding creating records.

A year later, Denham remains concerned.

"Obviously, it (the current non-responsive rate) is better than 25 per cent and 26 per cent, but it's still higher than the benchmark," Denham said in an interview.

Denham said she's planning an updated report on the problem, and will also be examining other issues related to the quality of records that are released.

"How can we have transparency and accountability if records aren't created in the first place?" Denham said.

"The creation of records is a fundamental part of our access-to-information rights."

Denham wants the law updated to create a "duty to document" to ensure government business produces a paper trial. The province says it's studying the issue but has yet to make a decision.

Citizens' Services Minister Andrew Wilkinson, whose department oversees B.C.'s freedom-of-information program, suggested the increase in non-responsive requests can be largely explained by the centralization of the system in 2009.

The program is now handled by a single department and an online form allows applicants to submit the same requests to multiple ministries, which Wilkinson said has increased the number of "broad-brush" requests for information that simply isn't there to begin with.

He said staff have been working with applicants to ensure they are directing requests to the appropriate ministries, which he said has improved things.

Wilkinson disagreed with the information commissioner's assessment that the government has avoided creating records.

"It's understood through ministry staff that they need to document the work they do," said Wilkinson.

"We pride ourselves in being responsive to media requests and it's a function of democracy to allow the Opposition to file requests."

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