Access-to-information strategies

QUESTION: What if my access to information request got me nothing? What now?

ANSWER: by Jim Bronskill, Canadian Press

So, the envelope you’d been waiting for has finally arrived — but the reply to your access-to-information request is awfully thin, just a few pages. Or maybe it’s a big brick of a release but not exactly the documents you were hoping to receive.

Well, it’s not the last word. Here are some tips on what to do when your access request goes awry.

Review the documents carefully. Deciphering access records is a little like reading tea leaves: They are often a jumble, littered with strange acronyms and whited-out paragraphs, and lack titles, dates and information about who created the documents. Take time to go through them and make careful notes. Look up unfamiliar words and names. Draft a chronology of events based on what’s in the records and compose a list of questions.

Interview an official about the records. An access release can be a wedge that cracks open a story. It may well prompt a government agency to grant you an interview, even if only fragments of information have been disclosed. In fact, the agency may be eager to put those scraps of material into context. That foot in the door can lead to a wide range of questions.

Complain. If you feel you have been unduly denied records, you can complain to the information commissioner who serves as ombudsman for requesters. The powers of these appeal arbiters differ, depending on the jurisdiction.

Make follow-up requests. Even if the material released to you offers nothing of immediate use, it may contain clues for another request. Do the records refer to a meeting, report or proposal? Fire off a follow-up application.

Vary your wording. Was your request framed too broadly? Or narrowly? The wording should strike the correct balance in terms of the time period covered and the type of records you seek. In general, asking for more than a year’s worth of records can be troublesome. And unless you have names, dates and places, requesting a specific letter or briefing note might be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Try other departments. Perhaps another agency holds the information you seek. Ensure you have done your homework by first checking publicly available sources, phoning relevant agencies to see what can be released informally and zeroing in on the departments most likely to have records on the subject of interest.

Try other governments. Remember that municipal, provincial, territorial and federal governments have access regimes. Sometimes another level of government — or even another country — might possess records that satisfy your request.

Don’t give up. Delays, denials and demands for steep fees can be discouraging. But remember that the access-to-information game is a little like baseball in another way: If you get a hit every three times at bat, you’re doing pretty well. It’s the same with access requests. One request will yield nothing, the second might contain some useful background information and the third will form the basis of a news story.

Jim Bronskill is a reporter in the Ottawa bureau of The Canadian Press news agency, specializing in security and intelligence, policing and justice-related issues including civil liberties and human rights. He has considerable experience using information laws to uncover stories. Jim holds a master’s degree in journalism from Carleton University, where he has been a sessional lecturer since 2003. He was a co-founder and steering committee member of Open Government Canada, a national coalition formed to guard against undue government secrecy.