More than Numbers: Access is About Accountability

Apr 03 2018

We’ve got stats on the brain here at the IPC.

Institutions from across the province have submitted to us their annual reports summarizing stats on the freedom of information (FOI) requests they received last year. Thanks to everyone who got these to us on time.

While it might be tempting to get caught up in the numbers, these reports represent something far greater than figures on a page. The public has a right to know how their governments are operating and freedom of information requests are one of the ways they can do that.

Openness and transparency are essential to democracy, shining a light on how decisions are made and public money is spent. Without access to public records, citizens are left in the dark, while accountability and civic engagement wither in the shadows.

Institutions need to do their part to support the public’s right to know and their ability to respond to access requests. Poor records management is never an excuse to offload the time and cost of a search onto a requester. The IPC recently produced a webinar on tips for effective records management (now available on our YouTube channel) to help institutions streamline their records processes.

Responding in a timely manner to access requests from the public demonstrates accountability and compliance with Ontario’s access laws. Institutions can take things a step further by proactively disclosing information to the public.

Rather than reacting to a request for information, institutions can look ahead, anticipating information that is of interest to the public and publishing it themselves in a report or on their website. It’s a win-win — citizens get the information they seek and institutions can cut down on the number of formal freedom of information requests, appeals and associated costs.

The IPC has long been a champion of increased access, providing guidance to institutions on how they can be transparent as possible in releasing information. We’ve published how-to guides on proactive disclosure of procurement records as well as ways institutions can participate in open government while still safeguarding privacy.

Working with institutions, the IPC is supporting increased access and in turn, greater accountability. Now, more than 80 per cent of FOI requests in Ontario meet the compliance standards set by Ontario’s access laws. This is a marked improvement over the compliance rates of two decades ago, which were under 50 per cent. Compliance rates started to rise when the IPC started publishing these compliance rates in our annual report.

There’s still room for improvement, however. I once again urge Ontario’s institutions to look at their policies and procedures related to proactive disclosure, records management and responses to FOI requests. Make sure your practices are supporting the public’s right to know.

 

Brian Beamish,
Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario