LETTER: Ontario’s Freedom of Information system is broken
Letter writer says making a FOI request is like ‘pulling teeth, but far more agonizing given incessant quibbling and endless time delays’
From OrilliaToday, Jan9 2023
In my capacity as a researcher, my investigative team has reviewed over a million pages of municipal documentation since March 13, 2020, perhaps the most comprehensive research enterprise ever conducted regarding municipal data in the Province of Ontario.
Given the many constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, our group has relied almost exclusively on the digital record in Simcoe County. Requests for municipal information have been delayed to the extent of rendering the information utterly meaningless.
We have (made) dozens of freedom of information (FOI) requests, the majority of which have been appealed in one fashion or another. It is like pulling teeth, but far more agonizing given incessant quibbling and endless time delays.
Right now, we are waiting for the IPC — Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario — to render a decision about the disclosure of public record municipal documents — records that should be in the custody and control of the institution.
But, alas, dozens of emails to the adjudicator later, this request is mired in a sea of documents and time delays. It takes months for the IPC to process these appeals, so the relevancy of the information loses its lustre.
Government institutions understand these pitfalls and likely take full advantage of them, leaving the FOI requester in a constant state of “wait and see.”
Let’s face it, FOIs are an administrative burden for institutions that have other things to do, especially lower-tier municipalities that have tight budgets and smaller staff resources.
I get it.
Making a request is an art. Institutions likely receive many FOI requests that are incomplete or unclear. Our group learned its lessons early, given our difficulties in acquiring desired information.
There is a distinct disadvantage to all requesters — we do not know what records the institution may have or how they are organized. If the FOI request is too broad in scope, this may bring about a large and unintended lengthy and expensive search that uses up valuable resources.
Personally, based on our experience with dozens of FOI requests and hundreds of telecommunications, it seems incumbent on the institution to communicate clearly about its records system. In this case, the FOI Coordinator could reach out to the requester to narrow the scope of the information requested. This sounds like a reasonable compromise.
In the end, though, the IPC has no teeth to enforce the disclosure of records. After hours of mediation, our group was told that all the IPC could do was ask the institution to “please look again to see if there are any responsive records that match the parameters of the FOI request.” If the institution says, “They have found no records,” no one will audit these systems, leaving the requester in la-la-land.
This is frustrating to no end.
Researchers, journalists, investigators, lawyers, and others are beholden to a system that is inherently broken.