Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.
FOI Fees Reduce Public Access to Information
By Larry Kuehn
Freedom of Information is important to the public in public education. Unfortunately, British Columbia is headed in the wrong direction in proposed changes to Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) in the fall 2021 legislature.
Education policies have significant affects on individuals and the society as a whole and should be open to debate and reconsideration. Informed debate on policies can only take place if the relevant information is publicly available. This requires transparency on the part of government and local school authorities.
Too often policies are announced without adequate information about why a choice was made and what alternatives may have been considered. As a researcher and policy advocate, I have in the past asked for information of ministries to understand the basis for a decision–and been told I can only have the information by making a Freedom of Information request.
Frequently this information should simply be provided on request—or even published on the web without a request because it is relevant to public policy. Officials are reluctant to provide the information because it may lead to questioning of policies. If the information is provided because of an FOI request, the official can say they had no choice but to provide it and are less likely to be blamed for a public questioning of a policy decision using ministry information.
The FOI process as it exists is often problematic. One needs to understand precisely what to ask for. The information is supposed to be provided within 30 days, but extensions are more and more frequently requested. You can be told that extensive research is required, and you will have to pay for it. Or you get a document with much of the crucial information redacted.
To provide a specific example, the BC Teachers’ Federation recently requested of the Ministry of Education through FOI the research on which claims are made in a public brochure about the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA). The response from the Ministry was that it would cost at least $8,000 to document the research. 
If policies are made on the basis of research, any legitimate research protocol would require that it be documented with at least a bibliography. That type of information should be available on request without even going to FOI. If the policies are not based on research but some other basis, that should be the response, not retroactively doing the research at the cost of the group requesting the information.
All of this is to say that the FOI process should be revised to make it easier to use and to make information more transparent without having to file a formal request. Unfortunately, instead of improving the system, the legislation adds another impediment to its use—charging a fee for each request.
Charging a fee has only one possible purpose—to reduce the number of requests. The cost of collecting the fee is likely to be at least as much as the fee provides, so it won’t help cover government expenses. This will have the impact of making government less transparent. This applies to the provincial government, but also to School Boards and other public bodies that are covered by the legislation.
Individuals will be less likely to file a request if they have to pay a fee, especially, like most of us, they are not experts at formulating a request in a way that will get the information they are looking for and might have to file multiple requests to get the information necessary.
The Privacy Commissioner has raised the alarm that BC is moving backward in Freedom of Information, rather than moving to improve legislation that was dated and needed updating to improve, not reduce, the public right to know. Everyone concerned about this backward move should let the government know the legislation is going in the wrong direction.
 Communication received by the British Columbia Teachers Federation on April 8, 2021, in regard to Request for Documents EDU-2021-10662.
Larry Kuehn is a member of the IPE/BC Board of Directors and chair of the Research and Programs Committee. He is a research associate for the CCPA and retired BCTF Director of Research and Technology. He has written extensively on education matters including funding, globalization, technology and privacy.