The first BC Information Summit on September 29, 2006 will bring together academics, legal experts, journalists, elected officials and experienced Freedom of Information requesters to explore the challenges and solutions of creating an open government and a free flow of information to the public.
Carolynne Burkholder spoke to organiser Darrell Evans about the Summit and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’s new Campaign for Open Government.
What are the challenges to the free flow of information today?
The challenges are that governments want to control the information that the public can have–or essentially anyone who might be a critic of government policy. To control information is to control the agenda and the social discourse to a great degree. Although the government may see it in its short-term interest to block access to certain kinds of information, it’s very unhealthy in the long-term for the society.
What’s the history of the BC Freedom of Information Act?
It was passed in 1992, proclaimed in 1993, and the first four years were the glory days when the government was really on board, with the Glen Clark administration.
[During] the second four years things started to gradually fall apart, and, in effect, they started to slow down the access to information. [It] became…more expensive and less timely.
It accelerated even further under the Liberals so that it’s gotten extremely expensive, extremely slow and there are many barriers. It’s declined drastically in its usefulness as a tool, and many people are abandoning their requests because it takes so long and they give up in frustration.
Do you think this trend will continue?
The history of these things is the pattern they always follow is some government passes an FOI act or approves an FOI act in order to clear the air from a previous government.
The most recent case is Stephen Harper who came into office promising this accountability act and one of the main parts of that was to strengthen the Access to Information Act. Those are the opportunities you get to strengthen it.
Absent that, it’s a downward slide because governments gradually learn how to resist requests and they reassert their strong desire…to retake control of the information. It’s just automatic; it’s just the way things are with our competitive democratic system.
So we’re trying to do something here that hasn’t been done without a major disaster, which is to reverse the government’s thinking and stop that downward slide.
What’s the main goal of your campaign?
Reform of the Act itself because it needs to be brought into the 21st century with access to electronic information and just more routine release of information. Also we want the government to reform [the] terrible way it manages and handles requests for information.
How are you going to accomplish this?
We’re going to put pressure on [the government] through various means. We will do the usual things like letter writing and petitions, but we’re going to release focused reports on specific aspects of freedom of information and how the government’s doing all along the campaign.