Newspapers Canada

Newspapers Canada

September 27, 2011 00:30 ET

Newspapers Canada Finds Uneven FOI Performance in Audit

TORONTO, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - Sept. 27, 2011) - A total refusal to release contracts in Winnipeg, Quebec's denial of basic accountability information about top officials' spending, passenger manifests for Ontario's executive aircraft on which names deleted after six months and the federal government's stubborn refusal to release data in a useful form are just some of the findings of the Newspapers Canada sixth annual National Freedom of Information Audit, which tests the openness of governments across the country.

The 2011 audit is the largest in the history of the project, with 354 requests on 40 topics sent to all three levels of government as well as to crown corporations and hospitals.

"Because many of the requests were identical, the audit offers a unique comparison of different FOI handling across the country," said Newspapers Canada CEO John Hinds. "The audit shines a light on uneven practices that are not in line with the spirit of the legislation."

At each level of government there were several identical requests. Institutions were not told they were being audited. The audit grades institutions on the speed and completeness of their responses.

Audit Highlights:

  • How your request for information is handled depends on where you live in Canada. Of the provinces/territories, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Yukon were the fastest responders, while B.C. was the slowest. Federal institutions completed 61 per cent of requests within 30 days, compared to 50 per cent the year before.

  • Ontario was a special focus this year, (part II of the report) receiving 64 requests (other provinces received 17 each, up from five last year). Also requests were filed to the top volume ministries and agencies for logs of all general records FOI requests filed since April 1, 2007. This allowed for the analysis of more than 30,000 requests. Media requests in Ontario accounted for only one per cent of the total but made up 23 per cent of the requests considered contentious. Ontario received a D grade for completeness of disclosure.

  • A request for a social media policy for employees resulted in Saskatoon, Yarmouth and Corner Brook all releasing their policies on the same day the request came in. Transport Canada and National Defence took two months each to complete processing of exactly the same request, and Environment Canada took three months before denying access to half of what it held.

  • In B.C., an unusual approach to request handling allowed requests that actually took 38 calendar days to complete went into the records books as being released in full in just 21 (or 15 working days as B.C. does the calculation).

  • The City of Winnipeg said contracts are confidential, while the nearby city of Brandon released a contract in full.

  • Municipalities in Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland earned an A for speedy disclosure while Nova Scotia municipalities received an F (although the provincial ministries earned an A).

  • For completeness, municipalities in Nova Scotia and the Yukon got an F, while the provincial level in Manitoba and Nova Scotia each earned an A.

"There is reason for hope that the system is improving due to speedy handling of requests by municipal officials, and a refreshing openness about municipal contracts in places such as Saskatchewan, but there is much room for improvement in many areas," said Hinds. "Ontario continues to charge a fee more often than any other jurisdiction for what is public information. Officials should consider following New Brunswick's lead and removing fees altogether."

The project was led by Fred Vallance-Jones, assistant professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax. A student audit team submitted and tracked the requests from January to May 2011.

To view the audit, visit the Newspapers Canada website – http://www.newspaperscanada.ca/public-affairs/freedom-information.

Cities audited in 2011:
Alberta: Banff, Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge
BC: Nanaimo, Nelson, Vancouver, Victoria
Manitoba: Brandon, Stonewall, Winnipeg
New Brunswick: Fredericton, Moncton, Saint John
Newfoundland: Corner Brook, St. John's
Nova Scotia: Bridgewater, Cape Breton, Halifax, Truro, Yarmouth
NWT: Yellowknife
Ontario: Cornwall, Hamilton, Ottawa, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Windsor
PEI: Charlottetown
Quebec: Laval, Montreal, Quebec, Sherbrooke
Saskatchewan: Moose Jaw, Regina, Saskatoon, Yorkton
Yukon: Whitehorse
CONFERENCE CALL
John Hinds and Fred Vallance-Jones will talk about the audit and answer questions
DATE: September 27, 2011
TIME: 11 a.m. (EDT)
To call in, phone 1-866-512-0904
Participant code: 431-9481

About Newspapers Canada

Newspapers Canada is the voice of Canada's daily and community newspaper industry. We promote the positive reputation of newspapers as an essential medium that benefits all Canadians, and as an effective vehicle for advertisers. We act as a vigorous champion of journalistic freedom and democratic reform and a valued source of industry information, trends and best practices.

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