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 OIPC 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 email@example.com, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org).
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 OIPC (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.
OIPC can also handle appeals for withholding information (redacted data), high fees (sometimes the City asks for payment), and other issues with a FOI request. It’s important to note that OIPC can make Orders for the release of information. Appeals should be submitted within 30 business days of the City’s refusal to release records.
Tips on navigating through the FOI process are also available on the website of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIFA): fipa.bc.ca
FOI/ATI and other links
TransLink FOI requests are possible via a form on their website.
Metro Vancouver FOI requests can be made in writing as outlined on this webpage.
Federal information requests are commonly known as ATI (Access to Information) requests; the process is similar to the FOI process in B.C.
The Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) Online Request website has links to the appropriate forms and procedures.
Past ATI requests can be searched online. A copy of a previously released record can be requested from the Government of Canada. There is a $5 filing fee for federal requests (to the Receiver General of Canada).
Past B.C. FOI requests can be found on the Open Government website. Many, but not all previous FOI releases are posted here. In contrast, the City of Vancouver does not post the results of FOI releases.
Government bodies resist access to information, yet this is a key part in keeping governments accountable. The mere possibility of having records released can be a restraining force. It’s important for residents to do their part and file FOI requests to open up governments.
The Legislature is currently reviewing BC FOI laws. Public Hearings have been scheduled in Vancouver on October 16th and November 9th, 2015. Further details can be found on the website for the Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.