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Time to End Information Hide-and-Seek Games

Governments deny the public access to the most basic information. Here’s one example.

Ben Parfitt 16 Nov 2023The Tyee

Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives B.C. office.

In early October, information commissioners from across Canada called on the federal, provincial and territorial governments to do far more to ensure that members of the public get government-held information in a timely way.

“The culture of public bodies/institutions must be founded on the fundamental principle that information under their control belongs to the people they serve, and should be made available by default,” the commissioners said on Oct. 4, the 30th anniversary of the enactment of British Columbia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Governments must be more “proactive” in releasing information without members of the public having to file FOI requests, they said, adding that when formal FOI requests are made, governments must not unnecessarily delay the release of requested documents.

The commissioners warned that absent such actions, public distrust of governments will mount.

But the self-described “clarion call” for more open, accountable and transparent government fell short in not providing a single example of the lengths to which some bureaucrats now go to deny or, at the very least, delay the release of basic information that members of the public are entitled to and shouldn’t have to file FOI requests to obtain.

If things are to be fixed, it begins with reining in those inside government who abuse access to information or freedom of information rules to prevent members of the public from obtaining information that it is their right to have.

And when I say information, I mean the most basic facts, like who works for you.

A straightforward question

Recently, I wrote a report based on nearly 5,300 pages of documents that I received from British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests after filing an FOI request.

The documents, known as dike inspection reports, showed that officials working for the City of Merritt and the B.C. government knew for years that the dikes lining the riverbanks in that community were structurally unsound and posed a risk to public health and safety.

Portions of those dikes would go on to fail during the intense rains that fell across southwestern B.C. in November 2021, triggering massive flooding. As the water pushed through and then beyond the broken dikes, Merritt’s wastewater and drinking water systems were overwhelmed, forcing the city to order the emergency evacuation of its 7,000 residents.

After receiving the FOI documents, I filed a number of questions with the Forests Ministry, which had broad powers vested in it under the provincial Dike Maintenance Act to order local governments like Merritt to improve their dikes (as of last week that authority now rests with the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship).

The most straightforward of those questions, or so I thought, was a simple request for a list of names of all public servants who had authority for dikes.

“Who in the Ministry of Forests has as part or all of their job duties to inspect dikes and/or to review dike inspection reports?” I asked. “Please provide their names and which offices they work out of. A search of the publicly available B.C. government directory furnishes only one name when ‘dike’ is used as the key search word.”

Twenty-four days later, at the end of a working day on a Friday, I got my answer.

“There are currently 2 Deputy Inspectors of Dikes (DIODs) designated in the Flood Safety Section (Victoria) and 10 more in the FOR regional offices. In some regions, the flood/dike work makes up the full duties of the position. In others, the duties are shared with dam safety or other water authorization duties between one or more positions.”

But the ministry was not about to give me their names.

Doing Orwell proud

“A list of names and positions will require a level of review that can only be provided through an FOI request,” the ministry said.

As someone who researches and reports regularly on natural resource management issues, I have witnessed a steady decline in the number of public servants who are permitted to comment on anything. They routinely direct all calls to government “communications” gatekeepers, who increasingly insist that it is only through submitting formal freedom of information requests that sought-after information may or may not be obtained.

I am far from alone in this impression, as captured vividly in a recent investigation by the Globe and Mail.

But this particular reply left me dumbfounded.

First there was the obvious contradiction embedded in the answer itself. The ministry knew the exact number of public servants working on the dike file. It knew which of them worked in Victoria and which of them worked in regional offices. And it knew that some of them worked exclusively on dikes, while others worked on dikes and other files.

What “level of review” was possibly required to determine who these public servants were?

More disturbing, however, was that the ministry deemed it appropriate to tell a member of the public that to simply obtain the names of public servants working on his behalf would require filing a formal freedom of information request and paying a $10 filing fee and then waiting weeks or months for an answer that might or might not come back redacted. This is the public's information.

This is what “freedom” looks like in these Orwellian times when a corps of government communications, public affairs and now, in some cases, “public trust” officials patrol the border between the electors and the elected.

A click of a mouse away

Early the following Monday morning, I emailed the ministry back, noting that the government maintained a directory but that the directory was clearly out of date and citizens were therefore being denied basic information.

I also noted the contradiction between a government maintaining such a directory and refusing to provide information that was only a step above what was in the directory itself (more on that in a moment).

I concluded by noting that if the government continued to insist that I jump down the FOI rabbit hole, I would have to report as such in an upcoming story.

Less than a day later, I had the names that I should have had in the first place. They were all there in the ministry’s offices, just a click of a mouse away.

They were all also publicly available, as it turned out. If, that is, you knew where to look, which was far from obvious and which the ministry certainly wasn’t about to tell me. To find the web page using a Google search, one needed to know to type in the words “transfer of authority for natural resource management,” hardly a phrase likely to be top of mind for anyone.

I myself learned that the page existed only after speaking to a longtime former public servant who helped me find it and who volunteered that most members of the public wouldn’t have a clue it was there.

Once at the website, the viewer must then scroll to near the bottom of the page to the word “appointments” and below that a list of documents including one for the inspector of dikes and deputy inspectors of dikes. Once these are opened, the names can be viewed.

I leave it to you to decide why the ministry asserted that an onerous review was necessary to identify the public servants who are supposed to be there to ensure that dikes are up to standard and that public health and safety are adequately protected.

But I suspect that communications staff in the ministry may have thought that by trying to force me into filing another FOI, my reporting would be delayed or, at the very least, that I would be unable for the time being to reach the appropriate provincial dike personnel.

A deplorable state

As concerning as government delay of withholding of information is, the more immediate and entirely fixable problem is the deplorable state of the government directory itself.

How can members of the public have any confidence in their governments when they cannot readily find out who works for them?

Consider one example. Who is B.C.’s water comptroller, the provincial government’s top water official?

Roughly a year ago, Ted White held the job and his job title, name, number and email address were in the government directory.

But go onto the website today and type in his name and you will find nothing. Nor is there any result when you search under water comptroller.

Yet White is still very much a public servant. I know this after reaching out to three people in the department he used to work for before finding someone who would volunteer the most basic information: Where was their former boss?

For the record, White is now the acting director for compliance and enforcement and archeology in the Ministry of Forests’ integrated resource operations division.

As for who is filling White’s former shoes as water comptroller, that’s Connie Chapman. But again, you wouldn’t know that from the government directory, which lists Chapman as acting director of water management.

I could go on pointing out deficiencies with the directory, but I won’t.

Suffice to say that it is nowhere near up to date and frankly not nearly as useful as it could be and should be.

Here to serve?

A couple of things would help to set things on a better course.

First, every ministry or agency could instruct all staff to check the directory and report back on whether their names are there or not, whether their current job title is listed and listed accurately and whether their contact information is up to date.

Personnel in each ministry would then be responsible for ensuring that all missing names were published, that the offices and departments they worked out of were accurate as well and that all phone numbers and email addresses were correct.

But more must be done than just that. Current job titles are often extremely vague and don’t provide even a hint as to what many public servants actually do.

Take, for example, the 14 names eventually disclosed to me for dike inspectors.

I cross-checked every one of those names in the directory. Two of the 14 weren’t in the directory at all and a third may as well not have been there either as her name was misspelled.

But it is the job titles of those workers that underscore the bigger problem.

How would any member of the public know that a “flood authorizations specialist” or a “senior flood safety engineer” or a “senior hydrotechnical engineer” or a “senior flood and coastal resilience engineer” all have as part of their jobs to inspect dikes?

The directory’s usefulness would be vastly improved with the inclusion of links that tell users what specific responsibilities have been delegated to which public servants.

The other thing to do would be to ensure consistency and up-to-date information across all government websites where public servants and their job titles or functions are listed.

If, for example, you do a Google search of “dike inspections British Columbia,” you will turn up this web page. If you open it and then click on the URL under “contact information,” a list of names appears. Almost none of them correspond to the 14 names eventually given to me by the ministry.

Today in B.C. there are roughly 35,000 people working as public servants. They live and work in 280 different communities and perform 200 different kinds of jobs.

A provincial government website devoted to the province’s Public Service asserts that taking care of the public is why our public servants are there.

“We are here to serve. The public are not cold statistics, but flesh and blood persons with feelings and emotions like our own. The public are people who bring us their wants and it is our job to handle them as expeditiously and courteously as possible.”

If job No. 1 truly is to respond to wants and concerns as quickly and respectfully as possible, then it’s time to take the steps needed to make that a reality.

Give members of the public access to up-to-date and useful information on who is there to serve them.

And quit obfuscating and abusing access to information laws. No one should be told to file a freedom of information request simply to learn who works for them.

Lastly, there’s the matter of those nearly 5,300 pages of documents I obtained that kicked off the bizarre attempt to get a simple set of names from our government.

The documents I obtained were all required by regulation to be filed with the provincial government. Someone in the government bureaucracy decided that the documents I requested should be released to me in their entirety. And they were. Not a single sentence, not even a single sentence fragment was redacted in any of the dike inspection reports I obtained.

This ought to mean that from here on all such reports will be posted to a government website and freely available for any member of the public to read whenever they wish.

Had those documents been available years ago, there is at least a chance that some of the hundreds of people who went on to lose their homes in Merritt may have found them and may have started to ask questions.

Questions like: How come report after report is being filed with our city and with the provincial government showing that the dikes that protect our homes and businesses are in terrible shape and nobody’s doing anything about it?

Tough but fair questions that can be asked only when governments provide rather than hide information that is vital to the public interest.  [Tyee]

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