Russell: “We know there’s political interference… people have a misguided view of what the act is for.”
Russell suggests doing an FOI request about the previous request when the co-ordinator is not helping, and if it looks suspect.
Both suggest making a list of names of all public servants named in your ATIP. Look up who no longer works for the govt; call them at home. They often chat.
Russell: “There are people on the other end who have to grapple with your request” so don’t always assume that a high fee means they’re not burdened.
Both start their requests by “I am seeking all records defined by section ## of (the provincial/federal law) “related to” (the topic). “This request includes, but is not limited to” (example of records). That gives it a wide scope.
Russell: “It is always safe to assume that (the FOIP co-ordinator) is going to take the most narrow view.” So ask for “records,” not “information” or strictly “communications.”
That being said, "targeted, narrow request are best." You can only go on a fishing expedition some times. Ask for a wide range of records on a narrow issue/topic.
Russell: Confidential sources may not speak but can direct a FOIP request. Often they are the ones who have authored the documents.
Rusnell says people pushed out of public service are “likely to be bitter and pissed off,” so “we go looking for them” because they know what to request.
Both panelists say Alberta has moved against freedom-of-info, through publishing finished requests for everyone (thwarts a scoop), through deleting information. But former civil servants have helped them crack huge things, like the Redford penthouse or part of the Alberta Health Services issues.
Russell: Sometimes we phrase our request to specifically "exclude records from any external or public body" and then a separate one that includes those. So that the request doesn't get stalled for months.
Rusnell: “Get everything in writing because they will misinterpret … phone conversations.” Both advise recording all conversations with FOIP people.
Always ask for a fee waiver in the public interest in the first request.
Russell: Don’t assume that FOIP co-ordinator are trying to obfuscate. “Who wants to get into … sorting documents all day?” Some people go into this because they believe information is in the public interest.
Both advise tracking your request. “We have 100 on the go at any given time.”
They have a database in Google Drive with file number, the request’s phrasing, name of co-ordinator, last communication date and message, when can we expect to receive more documents.
Russell: “You kind of put their feet to the fire if they are not meeting their deadlines." Keeps them on your toes.
The help with high processing fees: ask to exclude duplicates, exclude “all versions of email strings that aren’t the final version.” And if you go to a review for a fee, you can say that you did try to narrow it, you negotiated with them.
Rusnell: Some organizations under the act don’t have a FOIP person, especially small/rural communities. School boards, Métis settlements have tried to deny requests because they don’t have a co-ordinator, or try to charge us the fee to hire a consultant or lawyer. You need to be clear with them that they have a duty under the law.
Request denied? Be prepared to fight. Ask FOIP commissioner to review.
Rusnell: When we get a package “We make a chronology of what we see in the documents, the timeline, how it unfolded, And gaps in your information.”
Emails can show you if someone is using their work account, during work hours, to facilitate something that shouldn’t be done by civil servants. That’s how they found staff at a college facilitating tickets for a PC party dinner.
When it’s time sensitive, the team drop off requests in person, or couriers them so they have a proven date of receipt. Instead of having agency claim they received the document a whole month after it was mailed.
Talk to FOIP co-ordinators. Many are helpful and believe in spirit of the Act. If you cover a beat, get familiar with who are the co-ordinators, which ones are speedy, etc.
Rusnell: It helps if you have a track record of producing quality journalism. In my stand-ups on air, I hold the document. “In this document…” It shows I have a track record of using FOIP in public interest, which stands up when it comes to a fee waiver/appeal.
Rusnell: When you’re getting started, try a few as a tests. Don’t get discouraged. This is an easy skill but you need to practise it. It’s an immense public-interest tool.
Questions. First: Take me through appeal process. What happens once you ask?
Russell explains in Alberta, a request for review form asks for your info, the number, and why you want to review (huge fee, they’re late in response, they redacted beyond the act). We do that and attach a letter saying here are our arguments, we would like you to review it. Sometimes in AB this takes two years.
The co-ordinator gives records to information commissioner, who reviews the redacted and unredacted information. Then they divulge what they feel is acceptable under act.
If you disagree with their decision, it goes to a board of inquiry, which is similar to a legal process.
Rusnell: You need to understand which documents that exist. It helps to find people who know what documents exist; what they’re called.
Once at the Journal, we looked into restaurant inspections. Dug through archives for name of inspectors. Convinced one to take us to a restaurant to do an inspection. He showed us what’s in the forms, what isn’t and what’s actually dangerous. We knew which forms to ask for — and to ask for photos inspectors took.
We saw in one document that the restaurant was accused of thawing their meat outside in the back alley, and that neighbouring people had photos of cats and birds touching the meat. We called people in neighbouring businesses; I called an insurance company worker who said ‘I took those photos!” And we had those in our report.
Question period is now a back-and-forth about the issues of govts divulging the requests publicly without a delay. It’s more than about scoops. One audience member: If my FOI requests were published before I published, I would get sued. It would thwart the story.
They also talk about the importance of co-ordinators not naming the requestor. They are supposed to be confidential but aren’t always. Rusnell says a competitor once asked for all requests submitted by him — and they got a package back.
The session is ending, but both welcome questions after:
Sean Holman takes podium. Asks people to use the hashtag #cdnfoi because it's connecting disparate people dealing with freedom-of-info issues and govt secrecy.