09/13/2012 06:37 EDT | Updated 11/13/2012 05:12 EST

Staggering Decline In B.C. Freedom Of Information Responses

Last time we posted in this esteemed spot, we told you that almost a quarter of all general freedom of information (FOI) requests submitted in B.C. over the past year were returned with "No Responsive Records."

We also promised to return with even more interesting details regarding the government's performance on filling FOI requests from citizens. Rest assured, we've got lots of details.

Our newest calculations, based on data published by the Chief Information Officer of B.C. (credit due to the B.C. government for making these numbers widely available), reveal that the FOI situation in this province has gotten significantly worse over the last decade. It seems that thousands of those pesky records have simply disappeared.

Back in the 2002-2003 fiscal year, for example, none of the FOI requests filed by political parties came back non-responsive. By the time this past spring rolled around, however, things looked significantly different, with more than 21 per cent of political party requests shut down by the government saying they didn't have any relevant records.

The news media fared even worse. Once again in 2002-2003, none of the general FOI requests made by media organizations stalled on non-responsive records. By the end of the 2011-2012 fiscal, that figure had skyrocketed to 264 non-responsive requests, accounting for nearly 34 per cent of all requests filed by the media that year.

Third time's the charm right? Let's take a look at what happened to requests from interest groups.

Increases in non-responsive rates for interest group requests more or less matched those of media organizations and political parties, reaching 18 per cent in the 2011-2012 fiscal. But that growth doesn't look so mundane when we realize that the number of interest group requests has actually dropped by almost half since 2002-2003. Even with this significant decline in the number of FOIs submitted, we see a serious reduction in response performance.

To be sure, these increases roughly correspond to an increase in the number of requests filed overall. But the barriers to access facing interest groups in particular make it tough to chalk this troubling trend up to a simple increase in volume.

The figures beg an obvious question: what happened? What brought on this staggering decline in the government's ability to find records in response to FOI requests? Why does it seem to be falling hardest on the groups most likely to ask awkward or impertinent questions of our government?

Are reporters and researchers just getting less savvy and more frivolous? Is the government providing insufficient support to those working in FOI offices?

In her 2010 FOI timeliness report, Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham alluded to the possibility that ministries might be denying access or claiming there were no responsive records to improve their timeliness statistics (which the commissioner's office has just started reporting on). Given these findings, we think she was on to something.

That's why we sent her a copy of our number crunching, along with a complaint. We'll let you know how that turns out.