Les Leyne: NDP skeptical of Liberal information promises

Les Leyne mugshot genericB.C.’s new chief records officer told a legislature committee on Wednesday the government is planning to revitalize its approach to information-processing and disclosure.

But some Opposition critics were skeptical of the initiative.

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Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland, associate deputy finance minister, was given the new responsibility four months ago in reaction to a critical report from Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham about how ministers’ office staff are denying access to records. After the report, an independent review made 27 specific recommendations to improve information-handling across government. Responsibility for freedom of information was yanked from cabinet minister Amrik Virk’s portfolio and moved to Finance Minister Mike de Jong’s.

Wenezenki-Yolland said her priority is to ensure government provides information as a public service, not just a legislated responsibility. More proactive disclosure of information is also being looked at as a priority.

In the context of transparency, proactive disclosure is the posting of more information in the public realm on a routine basis, without being prompted by specific requests.

“I would say that a freedom-of-information request is probably not the most ideal way to get information,” she said. “The more that we can put out on a proactive basis that is helpful to the public, then an information request becomes more of a last resort, as opposed to a first resort. There is a very strong commitment from government to looking at this.”

Ministers’ travel expenses are now posted regularly, and more details are to be released soon. Purchase-card information and senior officials’ calendars are also being considered for release, as has been recommended by the commissioner in the past.

Also in the works is better service orientation for staff and a better experience for people requesting information.

There is a commitment to improve timeliness of responses, which varies widely depending on requests and ministry. There is also a commitment to reduce the number of “no records” responses, by fulfilling the duty to assist people in framing their requests correctly.

“What we’re looking at is how we can refer that request to a ministry who could then contact the applicant and have a conversation with them,” Wenezenki-Yolland said. “In my personal experience with information-access requests, many times when you receive these, you think: ‘Well, if I could just have a conversation with the person, I’d be able to help them get what they need a lot faster.’ ”

As well, a senior bureaucrat in each deputy minister’s office is being designated as responsible for fulfilling information requests. Denham’s report zeroed in on cases where relatively low-level staff were mishandling requests. The testimony of one of them during her investigation prompted charges under freedom-of-information law last week for wilfully making false statements.

NDP MLA David Eby said the new structure sets up a situation where deputy ministers would have a conflict of interest in approving release of documents. They have the final call on release of sensitive information about their own ministries, rather than the records officer, he said.

“I don’t understand why you would let the person who’s in the conflict of interest, the deputy minister, make the final call instead of your office making the final call.”

Wenezenki-Yolland said the current legislation sets that framework, but: “I am certainly not a person who’s known to have any fear in having a very direct conversation with that deputy minister to raise those concerns.”

NDP MLA Doug Routley said the B.C. government’s information-handling is like professional cycling. There’s a culture of cheating and staying silent, which has resisted all past efforts to open up access to information.

Responding to 8,000 to 10,000 freedom of information requests annually now costs at least $20 million a year. British Columbians make about twice as many FOI requests as people in other provinces, per capita.

Denham later told the committee there has been a loss of confidence across Canada in how governments handle FOI, and bold moves are needed to restore confidence. The law needs to include a duty to document decisions, and independent oversight of deletion of records, with specific penalties for doing so improperly.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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