Right to Know week is being held from September 28 to October 4, 2015. One way to celebrate and take part is to make a FOI request to a local government body.
Transparency for governments is like holy water and sunlight to vampires. Freedom of Information legislation helps level the playing field by allowing residents to open up government records. It’s important for the public to become involved as part of a participatory democracy, in order to improve transparency and accountability in governments.
How is a FOI (Freedom of Information) request filed? It’s quite easy. We’ll provide a list of pointers and steps below pertaining to the City of Vancouver. Other municipalities, TransLink, the B.C. Government and the Federal Government use similar procedures (more on that later). The FIPA BC website and OPIC website also contain a number of tips on filing requests.
Filing a Freedom of Information Request
The process for filing a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in Vancouver is very simple. Don’t be intimidated. First download the FOI request form from the City’s website. You can then either print out this form and fill it out by hand or you can fill out the form electronically (with Adobe Acrobat).
After you have filled out the FOI form, you can send it back via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, drop it off in person (City Hall, 3rd floor, City Clerk’s Office), or send it via regular mail to:
City Clerk’s Office
453 W 12th Avenue
Vancouver, BC V5Y 1V4
The first part of the form “About you” is self-explanatory. There are two choices in the “About your request” section. The “General information” selection is most often the box to select. Use the option “Your own personal information” when the request pertains only to you (for example, all City email mentioning your name).
The third section gives you an option to ‘receive a copy of the record’ (our default), or ‘examine the record’; depending on the nature of the request it’s probably best to request a copy. Examining a record could pose difficulties due to timing (business hours at City Hall).
The “What records do you want to access” section is the most important one on the form. FOI requests are for records. The records can be reports, emails, computer models, drawings, survey forms, spreadsheets, databases, minute meetings, agendas, MOUs, photographs and anything else that might exist in a hardcopy or in an electronic form.
It is important not to ask open-ended questions, but rather to make specific requests for records. You do not need to know whether the record exists (the FOI search will determine this), so “fishing expeditions” are certainly possible. For example, a request for correspondence on the Viaducts between members of City Council and staff is fair game.
If there’s not enough space in the “What records do you want to access” section, fill in this section with a ‘see attached page’ comment and include a longer description for background. We’ve found that providing the context for a request can be helpful to secure the record. If you know of name of a City staffer who has access to the record, name them in the request. If a Councillor has spoken about a topic in the media, or if you see a mention of your topic of interest in a staff report, include this in your request. You may wish to stick to one topic in a FOI (make other requests for separate topics).
The final section “What is the time period of the records?” helps to narrow the scope of your search. The end time of “to present” is valid. The second page of the City’s FOI form also provides a number of tips on making a request.
After the City has received your FOI request, they have 30 business days to respond. You should receive a confirmation from the office that your request has been received. If the City has not responded to your request and the 30-day deadline is fast approaching, we suggest that you send a friendly reminder to the FOI office that your request is coming due (email email@example.com).
Don’t be intimidated. The process of filing a Freedom of Information Request is very easy. Just do it!
If you receive great information via a request, consider sharing it. Pass it along to an investigative journalist; let your neighbours, friends and community associations know. Unlike the BC and federal governments, the results of FOI requests are not posted by the City of Vancouver.
Subsidiaries of the City of Vancouver are fair game for FOI requests. The FOI Act also allows the release of records that are in the possession of the City [see section 3(1)].
In the event that information is withheld by the City of Vancouver, It is possible to submit an appeal to OPIC (Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia). If the City doesn’t respond within 30 business days, then an appeal can be launched on a “deemed refusal” basis. Continue reading