“Oral culture” at top levels of government grows under ‘Open Government Premier’

In a new investigation report prompted by a complaint from the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham confirms widespread and growing instances of senior government officials failing to keep records of important decisions.

FIPA’s complaint outlined a dramatic increase in the number of general FOI requests returned with “no responsive records” over the past ten years, and particularly over the last three. Denham’s report, released earlier today, not only confirms those numbers but also suggests that in some areas the problem is even worse than first thought.

Most damning among the report’s findings is that the Office of the Premier has seen a dramatic spike in non-responsive FOI requests over the past year. In the 2011/12 fiscal year, fully 45% of all FOI requests received by the Premier’s Office were returned with no responsive records. Denham even calls the Premier’s apparent allergy to disclosure “the single biggest cause” of increases in overall non-responsive rates between 2010 and 2012.

“It’s astounding,” said FIPA Executive Director Vincent Gogolek. “The Office of the Premier sets the tone for government, and now we have proof that almost half of all the requests they receive for information come back with absolutely nothing. It’s unacceptable.”

As FIPA’s calculations from last year suggested, media requesters were hit the hardest by this decline in performance. In the 2010/11 fiscal year, Denham’s investigators found 37% of media requests filed with the Office of the Premier came back unresponsive. By the end of the 2011/12 fiscal, that number had jumped to 49%.

Denham points to a growing “oral culture” as one cause of the problem. Her report shows that most communication in the Premier’s Office happens verbally or is classified as “transient,” meaning it is either never written down or quickly deleted. This is apparently what happened with the investigation of former chief of staff Ken Boessenkool.

Denham’s report recommends the creation of a legislative “duty to document” to ensure records are in fact created. However, despite the troubling evidence turned up by her investigators, the Commissioner declined to find that the government had failed to carry out its ‘duty to assist’ information requesters.

“We support the Commissioner’s call for law reform that would require government to produce written records,” said Gogolek, “but we don’t understand how she can say the government is meeting its legal duty to assist requesters in some of the incidents her investigators have uncovered. That part of the report is certainly a disappointment to us.”