Finance Minister Mike de Jong has issued a rare order under B.C.'s Freedom of Information law to ensure that travel receipts and daily calendars for cabinet ministers and their senior officials are automatically made public.
The change was part of a series of directives issued by Mr. de Jong to respond to criticism that his government has deliberately thwarted the release of information to the public through the practice of triple-deleting e-mails within government and relying on oral reports to avoid the creation of documents that could be accessed.
"The goal is to be recognized as leaders in Canada," the Finance Minister told reporters at a news conference on Monday.
That lofty objective remains far from complete – B.C.'s reputation on access to information has been tarnished by a series of reports chronicling widespread efforts across government to avoid transparency and accountability.
Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said Mr. de Jong's changes are both minimal and long overdue.
"They are not doing nothing, but they are doing the least possible," Mr. Gogolek said in an interview.
He predicted one of Mr. de Jong's new initiatives will be counterproductive.
Starting this month, the government will publish all active access-to-information (FOI) requests, a measure that Mr. de Jong said will provide more transparency on government response times. However, Mr. Gogelek said the change could discourage access requests.
"This is exposing FOI requesters. The privacy commissioner has asked for anonymity for those making information requests, and this seems to be going in the opposite direction."
Mr. de Jong was handed responsibility for cleaning up the access-to-information system after an especially damaging report last fall from the province's privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, who criticized the BC Liberal government for routinely impeding FOI requests. Ms. Denham also reported one case – in which a Ministry of Transportation employee allegedly lied to commission investigators about his role in deleting e-mails – to the RCMP.
It was that incident that revealed the government's practice of triple-deleting e-mails. Triple-deleting refers to the practice of deleting an e-mail, removing it from the deleted items folder and then deleting it a third time from yet another folder that contains backups of deleted e-mails.
Late last year, former privacy commissioner David Loukidelis was brought in to advise the B.C. government on how best to implement Ms. Denham's recommendations. His report prompted Premier Christy Clark to order her ministers and political staff to stop deleting any of their sent e-mails.
Ms. Denham has repeatedly called out the government for both deleting records and for not creating them in the first place. Specifically, she has noted too many access-to-information requests are returned with a letter indicating no records could be found. Mr. Loukedelis agreed, and called on the province to ensure information requests are processed by public servants instead of political staff and consider creating a legislative "duty to document" to show that the province maintains records and does not endorse an "oral government."
Mr. de Jong said Monday he has increased staff training and the budget so that access requests are handled more quickly. Items that are routinely requested, such as cabinet ministers' travel receipts and calendars, government contracts that are directly awarded and community gaming grants, will be pro-actively released.
Mr. de Jong said there is more work to be done and said he expects the culture in government that resists transparency won't easily change. Government officials are being trained on their "duty to assist" so that bureaucrats are prohibited from stonewalling FOI requests through a rigid – and unhelpful – interpretation of access requests. But he said he expects it will require legislation to enforce the new guidelines.