Step 1: Determine if the information you want is already available
A lot of non-personal government information is available free of charge and is waiting for you on the Internet. If you are interested in exploring what may be available there are a few key sources for such information:
Publicly available federal information
The Government of Canada has a list of all federal institutions and their access to information and privacy contacts. It also maintains a website called Info Source, which provides further resources regarding access to information and privacy.
Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call the offices of the government bodies you think have the information you want. All public bodies have information officers who are required to help the public with their requests. Establish personal contact, start a dialogue and work with them if possible to narrowly and accurately pinpoint the information or records you are seeking. A clearly worded, narrowly focused request is likely to result in a quicker response and a smaller fee (if you end up having to pay one).
The Government of Canada has a toll free line, 1-800-622-6232, to access information about the Government and to be connected to a federal institution of interest.
Publicly available BC information
The Personal Information Directory provides searches for summaries of Information Sharing Agreements; Personal Information Banks; Privacy Impact Assessments; Health Information Banks; Ministerial Orders; and Health Information Sharing Agreement Ministerial Orders.
Finally, one can search the Legislative Library of BC.
For BC Local Governments, Civic Net BC provides an index to Municipalities, Regional Districts and Regional Hospital Districts.
Researchers interested in electronic data, as opposed to documents, can consult the Data BC website and the province’s Open Data Initiative. Previous FOI requests and their responses are available through the BC government’s Open Information page. http://www.openinfo.gov.bc.ca/ibc/index.page?
While it is an important vehicle for transparency and a valuable resource for researchers, it is important to note that open data is neither synonymous with nor an alternative to a meaningful ATI/FOI regime backed by a strong legal framework. The proactive release of data by governments is always partial and selective. Data sets, which are increasingly regarded as important sources of information for investigative journalists and other researchers, are not always made available to the public. Unreleased data sets can be accessed through ATI/FOI requests.
I’m not sure who will have the information I’m looking for
If you are not sure which government body has the information you want, try and narrow down your search to either the BC Government, a BC municipal government, an organization/business in the BC private sector, or the Government of Canada.
Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call the offices of the government bodies you think have the information you want. All public bodies have information officers who are required to help the public with their requests. Establish personal contact, start a dialogue and work with them if possible to narrowly and accurately pinpoint the information or records you are seeking. You don’t need to explain why you want the information, but consider doing so if it might help determine exactly what records you need and who might have them. A clearly worded, narrowly focused request is likely to result in a quicker response and a smaller fee if you end up having to pay one.
The BC Government has a provincial call centre called Enquiry BC that provides information on government services and will connect you to contacts in provincial government ministries, Crown corporations and public agencies. The hours of operation for Enquiry BC are 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. – Monday through Friday. If you are calling long distance and know the government number you want to be connected to, call the appropriate Enquiry BC number below and asked to be transferred to the number you want.
Elsewhere in BC: 1-800-663-7867
Outside BC: 604-660-2421
Telephone Device for the Deaf (TDD) Vancouver: 604-775-0303
Telephone Device for the Deaf (TDD) Elsewhere in BC: 1-800-661-8773
If a public body or organization is able to help you locate and describe the information or records you want, be sure to ask for them informally and directly from the person you are dealing with. If they cannot or will not provide you with the information, then consider whether you want to file a formal request (more information on this below). If you decide you want to file a formal request, ask the person you are dealing with for the contact information of a dedicated access and privacy contact in their organization.
Previously completed requests
For several years now, federal departments and agencies and B.C. provincial ministries and government bodies have been providing information about previously completed ATI/FOI requests on their websites. As a general rule, the B.C. government has committed to releasing more information – in the form of completed FOI requests and proactively released government data sets – online than the federal government.
Material released by the B.C. government and its Ministries and Central Agencies under the B.C.
FOIPP Act is often available through the Open Information Initiative. Researchers can run keyword searches for documents released through FOI and Minister and Deputy Minister Travel Expenses using the ‘Search for Gov of BC General records’ resource. Results can be sorted according to publication date and month (dating back to 2011).
Records identified through Open Information searches can be downloaded as PDF files, at no cost to the researcher. This resource is excellent for identifying and obtaining copies of previously completed FOI requests sent to B.C. government ministries and some agencies. For entities listed in Schedule 2 (public bodies) or Schedule 3 (governing bodies of professions or occupations) of the B.C. FOIPP Act, researchers seeking copies of previously completed FOI requests must consult the public body/governing body directly.
Copies of previously released FOI materials can also be obtained through the websites of some municipal government bodies. For example, researchers interested in records released by the Vancouver Police can consult their Published Freedom of Information Requests webpage and find a (non-searchable) list of records by year.
The federal government’s Open Data portal now includes a searchable database of ATI summaries. Users can search by organization and release date. The portal provides the request summary, file number, and number of pages released. Information about previously completed ATI requests can also be found by consulting government department and agency websites and looking for links to “transparency” and/or “Completed Access to Information Requests”. It may be necessary to do some digging around the website, as these links are not displayed prominently.
At present, federal public bodies do not provide downloadable electronic copies of release ATI packages online. Instead, researchers will find a list of requests completed by month since 2011, with file numbers, summary descriptions, request disposition (all disclosed, disclosed in part, does not exist, all exempt), and number of pages released indicated. Having been processed through ATI, the records pertaining to these requests are now publicly available. Researchers interested in obtaining such records should follow the instructions provided on the government website in question.
Researchers may wish to comb through lists of previously completed records before filing new requests. This avoids duplication and can provide a valuable pool of records that can inform further requests. A review of publicly available records on the same general topic as the information of interest will often also provide ideas – keywords, dates, department or office names, etc. – that will be useful in formulating a formal request. For requests processed prior to 2011 (when the federal policy of posting summaries kicked in), researchers should contact the ATIP Unit for the public body and ask for a list. If the public body is not forthcoming, lists can be obtained by filing a formal ATI request.