Provincial government needs greater transparency: commissioner

“How can you judge a government, if you don’t know what they are doing?”

B.C.’s government needs to do more to disclose operational information to the public, the province’s information and privacy commissioner said June 11.

Michael McEvoy said the issue is one of transparency for voters in a healthy democracy, and he details suggested changes in a new report.

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He said while some public bodies meet their obligations under provincial law in disclosing information without official request, others can do more to meet those legal obligations.

“How can you judge a government, if you don’t know what they are doing?” McEvoy asked.

B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) was amended in 2011, requiring public bodies to create categories of records proactively disclosed to the public.

McEvoy’s office’s latest report said creating such categories and clearly communicating their existence to the public are critical in meeting this statutory obligation.

Such public bodies include not only the province but also Crown corporations, school boards and local governments.

But, he said in an interview, some of those bodies have created overly broad categories that do not serve the purpose of the legislation. Some bodies, he said, have created categories that are a single document or perhaps a website address.

Now, he said, his office has made it “crystal clear” what creation of such information categories means “to provide accountability to the public.”

"Proactive disclosure is more than just a helpful suggestion or best practice - it is a legal obligation under FIPPA," McEvoy said. "Public bodies can help themselves and the public by proactively disclosing frequently requested records."

The report investigated how 30 B.C. public bodies categorize records available without an access to information request. Such a requirement is consistent with FIPPA's overall objective of accountability and transparency, McEvoy said.

Categories of records should be specific, scheduled and publicly available, the report said.

McEvoy cited COVID-19 and the ongoing opioid crisis as examples where public bodies might create categories of records related to financial expenses specifically related to the pandemic.

The report has three recommendations for all B.C. public bodies:

• All public bodies should establish additional categories of records;
• Categories of records should be published and easily accessible to everyone, and;
• Government should update its Open Information and Open Data Policy to include guidance and tools to help ministries identify and establish categories of records for routine release

McEvoy’s report said such disclosure is less costly and time-consuming for individuals, the media and public bodies.

“Modern technology allows records to be published online quickly and at minimum expense, and accessible by any individual at anytime from anywhere,” the report said. “In addition, public bodies are already very aware of many of the types of records that are likely to be, or already are, commonly requested by members of the public.

“For example, in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is fairly likely that public bodies will be asked for records pertaining to information and decision-making related to the pandemic, including financial responses,” the report said.

Prof. Sean Holman of Calgary’s Mount Royal University said some in government seem to believe the public only has a right to know what the government chooses to tell them.

And that, said Holman, a long-time Victoria-based investigative journalist who used the freedom of information system, is an affront to the concept of the public being co-governors with politicians and bureaucrats.

“If we want a public that is able to be co-governing with our governments and our public servants, they need information to participate in that governance on an equal footing,” Holman said. “If we don’t have that, we don’t live in a democracy.”

Holman was part of the group whose report, released May 25, said Canadians deserve greater information transparency, protection for whistleblowers and COVID-19 ombudspersons across the country.

He said the pandemic has highlighted government secrecy.

But, Holman said, it would be wrong to point at any stripe of government for being at fault.
“No matter what government is in power, they’re still allergic to transparency and accountability,” Holman said.

“It’s a good report,” Holman said of McEvoy’s office’s work.

jhainsworth@glaciermedia.ca

@Jhainswo
 

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