The Alberta government is preparing to regularly dump FOIP documents online but critics say the government is “manipulating the system” in order to circumvent the ability of opposition and media to hold them accountable.
On Thursday, CBC News reported that freedom of information and protection of privacy (FOIP) co-ordinators from across government met on Feb. 3 with Doug Morrison, head of information access and protection for Service Alberta. The CBC reported that sources claim Morrison told the co-ordinators Premier Jim Prentice wants all FOIP documents posted on the government’s open data portal every Friday, despite concerns about privacy.
Information and Protection of Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton said she wasn’t consulted about the in-development “simultaneous disclosure” policy and she hasn’t seen a proper risk assessment from the government.
“It’s always a concern to me if I’m being bypassed when an initiative like this is going forward and I haven’t been consulted. So far, this initiative has not been implemented so I don’t know that there is any risk to privacy yet,” said Clayton.
Simultaneous disclosure isn’t a bad idea, said Clayton, as the information becomes more readily available to the public but it also could be a disincentive for media making FOIP requests and could even be seen as a way of “burying information”. Clayton says she hopes that the government will consult with her on the document dump.
Clayton’s office is currently investigating allegations of political interference in the FOIP process after documents released last year show that weekly summaries of FOIP requests, including when they will be released, what type of applicant has requested the information and what the information contains, are being assembled for cabinet ministers.
Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman noted an April 2013 memo that shows the Minister of Service Alberta is briefed on every FOIP request and “it strains credibility to believe that ministers would not take advantage of this information.”
Service Alberta Minister Stephen Khan said he has access to the weekly FOIP status reports but they are not used by cabinet ministers to form a political strategy. The government is aiming for more “proactive disclosure”, he said.
“This is really about making public information public…I don’t want to be prescriptive about what day of the week we’re going to disclose any public disclosure. That’s part of our process and as we refine that process, we’ll work with our stakeholders like the OIPC.”
NDP Leader Rachel Notley called Khan’s explanation “disingenuous”, saying the PC government is “manipulating the system” in order to better control information and “manage the damage from the information that comes out.”
Wildrose critic Drew Barnes said the fact that the information goes to public servants and up before it goes back out to the applicant “makes the privacy part questionable” and raises questions of political interference.
Khan said the government’s review of the FOIP legislation is underway and no decision about weekly document dumps has been made despite reports that department managers are preparing for the policy change presently.