Freedom of Information requests are an essential part of the democratic system that we so greatly value. They are an essential tool for the public and those working in their interest to retrieve information about the workings of government, shedding light on controversial decisions, troubling statistics, and other internal information that can be used to hold public officials accountable and bring about change in government institutions.
Unfortunately, there are growing concerns about the effectiveness of Alberta’s FOIP request process. This includes claims of possible political interference from senior government officials. According to an Edmonton Journal article in April, a 2013 memo from then-deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk directed “political press secretaries to intercept (freedom of information) requests containing information that could hurt the government’s reputation.” While the directives were never implemented, it demonstrates that the PC government has considered using directives to prevent the public from accessing sensitive internal government information (Wittmeier, 2014).
This past week, an Edmonton Journal analysis of “18 annual reports from 1995 to 2012” and “government responses to general requests for provincial records” found that two out of every three Albertans who submit FOIP requests for provincial government records are told that there aren’t any records related to the topic of their request. In 1995, the number of Albertans who received no records related to their request was only 5% (Kleiss, 2014a). Service Alberta argues that the increase in unsuccessful FOIP requests is actually the result of a significant increase in requests to the Ministry of Environment from “lawyers, developers and farmers” who are searching for information on oil spills and land contamination in Alberta (Kleiss, 2014b).
While the privacy commissioner Jill Clayton feels there could be legitimate reasons why records don’t exist, she is still concerned about this matter and is conducting a review to “ensure government officials are creating records when warranted” (Kleiss, 2014b).
Links to the recent stories on fruitless FOIP requests in Alberta, the government’s attempt to review FOIP requests for sensitive information, and information about other barriers to internal provincial government records are available below:
Kleiss, K. (2014a, July 10) Most Alberta freedom of information requests get no results:’No records exist’ for two-thirds of users.
Kleiss, K. (2014b, July 19) No records? That’s ‘good news,’ government says about ‘concerning’ freedom-of-information numbers.
Wittmeier, B (2014, May 30). Privacy commissioner to investigate freedom of information interference.