British Columbia Library Association
Presented by: Brian Campbell
January 15, 1998
The British Columbia Library Association welcomes this opportunity to present our reflections and comments on the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Act).
Advance notification of this meeting was very short. Necessarily our comments are brief and of a general nature. We look forward to the opportunity to present a more detailed submission and response to the Committee's recommendations prior to the final report to the Legislature.
Founded in 1911, the British Columbia Library Association (BCLA) is a non-profit, independent, voluntary association. Our membership includes over 800 librarians, library employees, library trustees and publishers, as well as public, academic, corporate, government, school, and other libraries. Our association works to encourage library development and to promote the mutual interests of library users and libraries through education, research, and cooperative efforts.
The BCLA was closely involved, both through the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) and under its own organization, in the 1991-1992 consultation process leading to the Act currently under review.
Librarians are justifiably proud of their participation in developing the Act which is widely viewed as one of the best in the world. The government of the time was supportive of the social principles embodied in the Act and viewed it as an important component of broadening democratic participation in the political life of the province. It also understood that a broad public consultative process was an important method for assuring the best possible legislative outcome..
The issues covered by this Act are of particular importance to librarians. Libraries are the only institution whose social purpose is to assure access to the widest possible range of information, knowledge, ideas, culture, and history. Librarianship is one of the few professions which is committed to advocating on behalf of both libraries and the public for increased access to information. Intellectual freedom and universal access are bedrock social principles of the profession.
Librarians also understand, as a result of their daily work with the public, the issues associated with accessing information, whether it is through the Internet, printed sources, or through specialized information sources such as government information. Librarians on the front-line throughout B.C. understand how individuals seek and use information to educate themselves, to improve their work circumstances, and to increase their understanding of the world around them.
While principally concerned with access to information, librarians also recognize the public's concern over the privacy of their information in all areas of life and the significant opportunities to trespass on that privacy - either through lack of foresight, attempts to streamline government services or management, or to gain commercial advantage. Integral to our concerns for access is our attempt to balance that need with protection of personal privacy.
It is in this spirit of public concern and advocacy that the BCLA presents this brief and its associated recommendations.
Most important to our brief is that the original intention of the Act, to provide access to government information without financial or bureaucratic impediment, be maintained.
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN THE REVIEW OF THE ACT
The creation of the Act included broad consultation with those organizations and individuals most concerned with freedom of information and protection of privacy. These included FIPA and the BCLA. Ample opportunity existed through sectoral consultations and public meetings for specialists and the general public to present their opinions and recommendations.
The statutory review of the Act should match, if not exceed, the original consultation process. BCLA therefore finds it regrettable that these public meetings have been called with so little advance notice and so little preparation of the public to encourage active participation. While the government often comments that libraries are central information access points for the public, no information on this review process has been distributed through libraries. The ads in the paper were small and very official, the minimum that could be done.
This legislative review provided an excellent opportunity to raise the profile of the Act and to further educate the public as to its background and intentions. As it stands, the public consultation arrangements for the work of this committee is the anthesis of the principles of open government on which the Act is based. Fortunately, there is time and opportunity to rectify the situation and broaden participation by:
Research on who uses the Act, how the information received is used, and where the Act fits into the information chain in this province is non-existent. Other areas that require research and analysis include an evaluation of the process individuals must go through to get the information, how much information was previously automatically disclosed and now requires an FOI request, the impact of the privacy sections of the Act on information access, how the information recording habits of civil servants have changed as a result of the implementation of the Act, and strategies that have been developed to bypass the intentions of the Act. This is a brief list of the many areas that require research. The provision of funding to academics, students, and community organizations to conduct research will enrich the entire debate on the costs of and social implication of the Act.
There has been considerable speculation and some evidence that the government's intention with this review is to weaken the Act through increasing user fees or instituting full cost recovery for information requests. The BCLA is one of many community-based organizations which believe the Act requires strengthening, not weakening.
This committee has already heard estimates of the total costs associated with administration of the Act. This information is relatively easy to compile. By just mentioning the costs of administering the Act, a false impression is created in the public mind. The $21 million cost that has been mentioned is a very small proportion of the multi-billion dollar government budget and less than the $27 million government communications budget.. There is also no itemization of what this expenditure accomplishes.
The BCLA recommends an independent review of the cost of administering the legislation.
Much harder to measure but much more important are the economic and social benefits received both by those who request information and, indirectly, the government. Even more intangible are the benefits for individuals, either directly or indirectly through the media or community organizations, when they are able to exercise some control over their life by accessing information that is important to them.
Suspected misuse by a few users, the media, or opposition political parties are among the complaints concerning the cost of administering the Act.. However, a quick review of the government's own Request Tracking System demonstrates the wide distribution of requests, with the largest number - more than double any other category, coming from individuals.
While the Act has much to recommend it, there are many areas not covered in the initial Act and numerous grey areas that require clarification.
DISSEMINATION OF GOVERNMENT INFORMATION OR ACTIVE DISCLOSURE
The BCLA supported, in the consultations leading to the existing Act, the creation and entrenchment in the Act of a government depository program. A small government depository program was established but is underfunded and not supported by a legislative mandate..
Currently, libraries are experiencing increased problems and frustration gaining access to government information. Electronic publication through the Internet is often viewed as the sole source of government information. Annual reports and other reports are not being produced in a timely manner so that when the information is released it lacks currency.
Government information should be widely disseminated. The more broadly government information is disseminated and used, the greater the return on the government's investment in collecting or creating that information. Requests for information through the Act should be viewed as a last resort.
The BCLA recommends, therefore, that the government actively make information available to the public through a legislated print and electronic government depository program. The government should also establish an overall co-ordinating mechanism for assuring an index of all government publications.
SUPPORT FOR THE INTENT OF THE ACT
The 1992 Throne Speech outlined the intention of the Act:
For the first time in British Columbia, public access to many previously restricted government documents will be clearly defined through a new Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. This legislation will ensure new openness and greater accountability by the government to the people of British Columbia, while protecting individual privacy. We will devote significant government resources to making it work, starting with the better management of government records.
Section 6 of the Act states "The head of a public body must make every reasonable effort to assist applicants and to respond without delay to each applicant openly, accurately and completely."
Increasingly, however, applicants are being frustrated with bureaucratic delays discouraged by the Act. Sections 13 and 20, in particular, are being used to delay or avoid providing information. Hopefully, this committee will hear from individuals who have experienced frustration in attempting to access information under the Act. While the intention of the Act is clear and the duty to assist is even clearer, the culture of openness and cooperation has a long way to go.Under Section 20, requests are being turned down ostensibly because of the intention to publish or release the information to the public at a later date. Use of this Section is often just a delaying tactic.
Government departments and agencies are increasingly publishing government information for purchase in the misguided belief that charging the public for information is a revenue source for the government and an overall economic efficiency. No research has been done on the cost of creating the information and the percentage that is recovered through charges. While the government has not officially adopted a "tradable information" policy, it is operating as if it had one. In addition, government departments and agencies actively consider publishing information for cost as a way to restrict "free" access to the information and delay having to respond to requests.
BCLA recommends that Section 20 of the Act be re-written to assure that expanding the government publication-for-charge program does not interfere with access to information. Further, reports must be released when their recommendations are acted upon rather than forcing the public to wait the 60 days to see the report through its official release or publication, as provided for in this Section of the Act.
Restrictions under Section 13 of the Act have been expanded to include an ever enlarging "zone of confidentiality" so that a broader definition of policy advice is used to refuse access. Further, the concept of "draft" is being enlarged to include more than just regulations and can now include entire reports. "Draft" needs to be carefully defined to ensure that a department or agency cannot withhold a report once its recommendations have been acted upon.
Provision of the Act allowing for non-disclosure of information from in-camera meetings are being abused in some jurisdictions. Further amendments to the Act are necessary to restrict this tendency.
The BCLA will expand on these issues in its written brief.
The BCLA supports "informed consent" as the fundamental contract between a government and its citizens on the information it collects. Recent events demonstrate the dangers inherent in massive data collection combined with the powers of information technology.
The BCLA also supports the implementation of privacy legislation for the private sector and supports using the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) code.
The BCLA is also concerned about the impact of contracting out of government databases on privacy protection.
Again, further elaboration will be contained in the written brief.
RECORDS MANAGEMENT LEGISLATION
The BCLA supports the development of a B.C. Archives Act that will provide guidelines for document retention and disposal, particularly electronic documents.
Again, more on this in a later submission.
SUNSHINE LEGISLATION/WHISTLE BLOWER LEGISLATION
The BCLA will comment on this in a future brief.
The BCLA encourages this committee to take sufficient time in its deliberations to assure broad public consultation in the review of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. We are prepared to assist your committee in educating the public in the importance of these issues and in holding public consultations throughout the Province.
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