Alberta gets a ‘D’ in freedom of information audit

By Darcy Henton, Calgary Herald September 24, 2012 6:18 AM

EDMONTON — Alberta’s past two premiers have campaigned on bringing more transparency to government, but the province still earned a ‘D’ for its record of disclosure in the latest survey of how governments apply freedom of information legislation.

Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland were found to be the most transparent in a National Freedom of Information Audit released Monday by Newspapers Canada.

But in Alberta and several other provinces, as well as the federal government, openness is “just a slogan,” the report says.

“On paper it looks great — a right upheld coast to coast to peer into the dark corners of government filing cabinets and shine a light on the inner workings of our public institutions,” says the 69-page report.

“Actually getting into those filing cabinets can mean long waits, large portions of documents blacked out and creative interpretations of what seem to be straightforward access provisions.”

While Alberta earned a ‘B’ for its speed at responding to information requests, it earned a D along with Manitoba and Ontario for failing to disclose all information requested.

Quebec and New Brunswick fared even worse, receiving an ‘F’ for being the most secretive.

Alberta also was cited in the report for charging fees over $50 in 25 per cent of the information requests, second only to Ontario, which charged fees on nearly half of the requests for information.

The report found a request for briefing notes from the Alberta Solicitor General regarding the capacity of the province’s jails to be a futile exercise.

“(It) took 60 days to release records that were so severely severed as to have no useful information in them,” it stated.

Alberta also refused to release any briefing materials prepared for the premier regarding the new federal health-care funding formula.

Municipal governments in Calgary and Edmonton fared much better than the provincial government in the survey, prepared by University of King’s College assistant professor of journalism Fred Vallance-Jones.

Both received an ‘A’ for prompt processing of requests and a ‘B’ for completeness of disclosure.

However, the report notes the City of Calgary refused a request for information on the mayor’s most recent trip on the basis the information would be published online within 60 days, but only a summary of expenses, without receipts, was ever posted.

“Refusing requests for detailed records because summaries are posted online has the effect of making government more, not less, opaque, under the guise of being open and transparent,” the report states.

The City of Edmonton was singled out for an excessive charge to respond to an information request.

When asked for police reports on the use of Tasers dating back to the beginning of 2010, Edmonton wanted more than $10,000 for the full investigation reports of the incidents.

The Newspapers Canada audit involved sending 10 information requests to municipal governments, 16 requests to each provincial government and 55 requests to the federal government — a total of 410 requests to 11 federal departments, five departments in each province and 20 municipalities across Canada.

The federal government fared poorly in the survey, earning a ‘C’ for response time and a ‘D’ for fullness of disclosure. The survey found it denied in whole or part, or was overdue in its response, in 82 per cent of its information requests.“The federal government’s performance was again among the worst,” says the report. “Only half the requests were completed within the statutory 30-day deadline.”

The report said the federal government and many other governments, are “stuck in the 1970s” with their insistence on releasing paper rather than providing electronic copies, even when they are requested.

Alberta has faced criticism for many years for its secrecy. Former premier Ralph Klein, who brought in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in 1994, won an award for heading the most secretive government in Canada in 2005. He was presented the Code of Silence by the Canadian Association of Journalists after a privacy adjudicator determined his government deliberately withheld requested information about flights on government aircraft until two days after the 2004 provincial election.

Klein’s successor, Ed Stelmach, who promised more transparency and introduced a lobbyist registry as his first bill, was accused in the legislature by NDP Leader Brian Mason of heading “the most secretive and undemocratic government in Canada.”

Premier Alison Redford also campaigned on the transparency ticket, appointed an associate minister of accountability, transparency and transformation. She has announced a new policy requiring all MLAs and senior civil servants to disclose travel and hosting expenses online with accompanying receipts, but the policy doesn’t include their constituency office expenses and there are concerns the information will be released in a format that will make it difficult to analyze.

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