Jun 11, 2015

Takeaways from the CAJ conference, Part 1: Dean Beeby and FOI for Dummies

On June 5, I went to the first day of the Canadian Association of Journalists' annual national conference. I wasn't able to attend both days of the event, but the sessions I did go to were fantastic. In the next few posts I'm going to lay out what I learned, session by session. This is part one: Dean Beeby and FOI for Dummies. 

It was a great treat to meet and talk for a bit with Dean Beeby. He spent almost all of his career at the Canadian Press, and just last year he went to the CBC's Ottawa bureau. To give an example of his reporting, Dean broke this story about the Harper government leaving $97 million dollars unspent on social services.

That story couldn't have been done without certain key documents. Governments generate millions of documents, and the majority of them will never be seen by the public. Access to information stories give people an insight into ways governments work that we would not otherwise have, Dean explained. 

It costs a $5.00 application fee to use freedom of information (FOI) and access to information/privacy (ATIP) legislation. Legislation exists at the federal and provincial levels, and some municipalities. Federal is the easiest to navigate and the best place to practice requests. Some major federal departments such as the department of national defence are now accepting online applications and payment by credit or debit card. This is good, because the department is required to respond with certain time limits and online applications expedite the process.

Here's what comes with the $5.00 application fee: email responses from the department, a CD of electronic copies of the documents (if requested), 125 pages of photocopies, and 5 hours of processing or research time by department staff. Sometimes we hear about FOI applications costing ridiculous amounts of money, but Dean said that by targeting his requests and making multiple requests (each new request gets 5 more hours and 125 more photocopies), he rarely pays anything more than the application fee. 

Your identity as a requester is supposed to be confidential and stay within the ATIP unit - but a minister can overrule this. Also, any applications marked "journalist" as opposed to private citizens may be flagged to the minister's office. There is an option where you may "decline to identify." 

Somebody in the audience asked if it would be helpful to have a non-journalist make the requests. Dean said he didn't think that would work very well, and in a climate where it is very hard to get an answer from the federal government we should use the legislation fearlessly. Be polite, be persistent, demand good service and respectful treatment.

Some documents are privileged and excluded from ATIP requests. But some of those, such as cabinet confidences, will be declassified after 20 years. Then they'll come under the act, and if they still have relevance to what's going on today, it could be worthwhile to request. 

Six months is about the maximum useful timespan to request a series of documents (e.g. requesting documents generated between January 2014 and June 2014). If you request more, you may end up with a pricey bill or more information than you can handle. You can also split up your requests (e.g. one request for January-June, a second request for July to December).

Make it a habit to request lists. You can then look over the lists and see if there are items on the list that deserve a deeper ATIP. E.g. at the beginning of the month, Dean requests a list of briefing notes to ministers and deputy ministers. All he receives are the titles of the notes, but then he looks over the titles and does a second ATIP on anything he thinks is intriguing. He encouraged all of us to pick a ministry and try this next month.

Also, keep your wording in requests general. "Briefing notes" might be too specific. "Briefing material, including briefing notes, memos, Powerpoint material, house cards, etc" is better. Etcetera is a good word to include. 

If you are not sure about useful wording, you can take a look at the federal database of completed ATIP requests. Any of those completed requests can be ordered without paying the $5.00 fee, so you can see what you might get back.

Try things like checking the Canadian Merx tendering website. Maybe a department is ordering an interesting consultants report, to be due on a particular date. You could make a note in your calendar and ATIP that report when the date comes around.

Any citizen can use the ATIP/FOIPOP legislation for themselves. It was put in place to give citizens better access to their government. Only about 15 per cent of requests come from reporters, Dean said. The rest come from opposition parties, trade unions, lobby groups, and many other types of requesters. Dean said many reporters never learn to use this legislation but he sees it as a duty. 

Here is Dean's quick guide to ATIPs, posted on the CAJ website. Follow him on Twitter @deanbeeby.

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