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September 30, 2006

New Policy on "Deemed Refusal" to Provide Government Information

The BC Information and Privacy Association, together with the Canadian Taxpayers Association and the UBC School of Journalism, sponsored the first "BC Information Summit" on Friday, September 29th. The event was co-sponsored by the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Newspaper Association, the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities, the Canadian Office & Professional Employees Union, the BC Library Association, Trial Lawyers Association of BC and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. No one could accuse that broad cross-section of BC interests of being partisan.

Panelists and presenters included former Attorney General Geoff Plant, former Finance Minster Paul Ramsey, David Loukidelis, Information and Privacy Commissioner of BC and Gary Dickson, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Saskatchewan. Keynote speakers David Mitchell and Murray Rankin demonstrated detailed understanding of challenges to accessing government information. Participants of all political stripes heaped praise on Blair Lekstrom, Liberal MLA and former Chair of the Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, for leadership in developing recommendations to improve BC's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and for his continued advocacy for government to implement the recommendations made by the all-party legislative committee in May 2004.

Frequent users of the access to information provisions in the legislation shared common experiences of delay after delay only to finally receive blanked out pages from which all relevant information had been deleted for one excuse or another. I told the conference that I would further test the government and the legislation by submitting a freedom of information request this weekend on statistics that are relevant for the government's "Conversation on Health".

A backgrounder to the news release announcing the Conversation, said:

B.C. has invested in additional surgical capacity. Increases in the number of surgeries between 2000/01 and 2005/06 include:
  • Knee replacements increased by more than 84 per cent;
  • Angioplasties increased by more than 62 per cent;
  • Hip replacements increased by more than 47 per cent; and
  • Cataract surgeries increased by 33 per cent.

A graph on the media site portion of the Ministry of Health website, illustrates an earlier version of those data as well as a 7.3% increase in the number of coronary bypasses, but the site does not appear to disclose the number of such procedures performed each year. It is not possible to go to the original data in order to determine whether the percentages cited in the government's news backgrounder are accurate. My freedom of information request is for those annual figures showing how many knee replacements, angioplasties, hip replacements, cataract surgeries and coronary bypasses have been performed each year for the last five or more years. MSP's "Fee-for-Service Payment Analysis 2000/2001-2004/2005" does not support the percentage increases reported by the government, but that is understandable since all procedures are not performed on a fee-for-service basis; consequently, the government must have some other report that supports the percentage increases it cites. I expect that the Conversation on Health will be concluded before my freedom of information request is answered.

BC's Freedom of Information Commissioner saved a little surprise for the end of the conference. When a "public body" does not respond to a request for information within the time limits specified in the Act, it is termed a "deemed refusal". David Loukidelis announced that his Office will no longer add to the frustration applicants for information face by adding further delays within his office. Effective November 1, 2006, complaints regarding deemed refusals will receive expedited processing by the Commissioner's Office. A new policy document and a fact sheet regarding the handling of deemed refusals has been sent to deputy ministers and the heads of crown corporations and has been posted on the Commissioner's website.

The expedited appeal procedure for deemed refusals is a small step towards better access to information. Time will tell whether it makes a difference. What is really required is a culture of openness rather than game playing that appears to do everything possible to delay answering freedom of information requests. That culture won't change unless government evaluates its deputy ministers and other managers on their compliance with both the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. With the right incentives a culture of openness could be created so it wouldn't be necessary to use the Act to get government information. The test on whether government will provide information relevant to its Conversation on Health may be a first measure of the effectiveness of the Commissioner's new policy and of the openness of the Campbell government.


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