Freedom of Information (FOI) is an important democratic right. While many British Columbians may have heard of FOI, not everyone has -submitted a request, so you may not know how the process actually works.
The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA) gives you the right of access to most government records. There are some records that you can’t request (like court records or records that are available for purchase), and other records that could be withheld when you do request them, but only where it’s spelled out in the law.
We also do our best to make information available through other channels so that you can access information about government programs that interest you at your convenience, and so that you can engage meaningfully with government on the things that matter most to you.
All of the roughly 2,900 public bodies in the province have a legal obligation to respond to your FOI request, and they also have to make sure their response is complete, accurate, and on time.
When you make a request to a ministry, your request goes to the professional staff at government’s central FOI processing branch (called Information Access Operations). When you make a request to bodies outside of core government, such as health authorities, universities, school districts and municipalities, you contact them directly.
This post outlines what typically happens when a request comes to Information Access Operations (IAO). You can expect the process to be very similar when you make requests to other public bodies.
Your request needs to be in writing, and it needs to be specific about the records you are interested in. When you are looking for your own personal information, we’ll ask you to prove your identity, to ensure we’re maintaining your privacy. You can only ask for someone else’s personal information if you are legally allowed to act on that person’s behalf (like when you are an executor).
Someone will get in touch to acknowledge your request has been received. If we have questions about your request, we will contact you by phone or email. This is done to ensure that you receive the records you’re looking for and avoid paying a fee for records you don’t want.
Once we have a clear understanding of what you are looking for, employees who might have records are asked to carry out a search. Employees conduct careful searches and provide any records responsive to your request to IAO. Sometimes, when the Ministry doesn’t have all the records you are looking for and they believe the records exist in another public body, your request might be transferred partially or in full. You will be notified if this is the case.
Once all of the records have been collected, specially trained analysts carefully review the records and work with knowledgeable ministry staff to recommend the removal of information that the law says can’t be disclosed. For example, FOIPPA says we can’t disclose information that is harmful to the personal privacy of another person. Other examples are that we have to carefully consider whether to disclose information that could be harmful to the conservation of heritage sites, intergovernmental negotiations, or law enforcement, among other things.
Next, the Ministry reviews the records and provides final approval on the response. Then you’ll receive a package of records that responds to your request by email or through the mail.
We think that FOI is an important public service, and not just a legal requirement. We take all of these steps to make sure that you get the information you are interested in, your privacy is protected, and you feel that you had a positive, cooperative experience.
Now that you know more about the complexity of what goes on behind the scenes, tell us how you think we can improve FOI service?