In a recent appeal by a Toronto Star journalist seeking trustee expense audit documents from the Toronto District School Board, we found that a lack of clarity about the records requested and a failure to follow internal procedures led to problems in how the board responded to the request. These missteps led to serious accusations of document tampering and interference in the freedom of information (FOI) process resulting in negative media attention. Through our inquiry, we found that there was no evidence of wrongdoing, and made recommendations on how similar problems can be avoided in the future. The board is to provide us with an update by the end of the year on its progress in implementing the recommendations.
This case should serve as a cautionary tale for all institutions in managing FOI requests. Ontario’s provincial and municipal access laws place important responsibilities with freedom of information coordinators (FOICs), who must seek clarification when a request is unclear. Failure to take this important step can result in misunderstanding, misperceptions and delays as well as frustration for the requester and any third parties who may be affected. Here are some tips to help avoid these difficulties.
Have Procedures in Place and Follow Them
Every public body covered by access laws should have well documented procedures in place for responding to FOI requests and follow them in every instance. Training should be provided to all staff who respond to requests and those who are regularly involved in records searches. This includes ensuring that there are employees available to cover staff leaves and vacations.
While everyone has the right to request government-held information, navigating the FOI process can be difficult for the public. What may appear to be a routine request may in fact be complicated, especially when there are multiple versions of similar records, as in this case. By working with the person most familiar with the record, you can determine exactly which records are relevant and then go back to the requester to ensure clarity. This will allow you to deliver your decision in a timely manner.
Notice to Third Parties
There may be times when third-party information is contained in the records requested, and the views of that individual or organization must be considered before release. There may be people who do not understand the process, or exactly what information about them is being sought. Before providing notice, it is a best practice to have clarified the request and the responsive records. If the third party requires additional information, clarification should be provided to them about exactly what records are at issue.
If you are facing challenges on how to process specific FOI requests, there are resources available on our website and through the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services.