COLUMN: How you can get the government’s confidential stuff

The Abbotsford News’ handy guide to asking public bodies for their interesting information

It’s begun to dawn on me recently that most people have no idea what, exactly, a reporter does.

Over and over, I’m asked by friends how I find stories.

My usual answer is pretty useless: I try to find something out – maybe at a city council hearing, maybe through intuition, maybe by keeping my ears open – and then I write about it.

If I was interviewing me, I’d roll my eyes and say: “But what do you actually DO?”

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So, I’ll let you in on a key tool of the trade, and then (self-servingly) show you how you can put it to use.

You may have heard of this “freedom of information” thing. Basically, every government – local, provincial and national – has some law requiring certain information to be accessed by the public.

That info is often public in name only – most of it can’t be found online or in easily accessible records.

Part of that is for good reason: There is an ocean of stuff that would swamp computer servers, and many of the public records must first be scoured so that private information remains private. Partly, it’s also that governments don’t really want all that stuff out there.

Now, the federal government is subject to its law that is a nightmare to navigate. The Liberals promised to improve it. They haven’t. So let’s shake our fists in Ottawa’s direction and skip that whole nightmare for now.

The provincial Freedom of Information law isn’t perfect. Public bodies routinely abuse exceptions for “private” information, business interests and staff advice, but it’s markedly better than the feds. In addition to the B.C. government, the law also governs cities, health bodies and municipal police forces.

And here’s the kicker: There’s no fee to ask. You can fire up your email right now and ask for some good old public information.

Now, you might not get it. In fact, you probably won’t because of those aforementioned exceptions. And you may also eventually be asked to pay, if the governmental body in question says that fulfilling your request will take too much time.

But that doesn’t mean a reporter – or citizen – can’t try.

Last year, the friend of a couple who got T-boned wondered how many other people have been injured in similar crashes. They sent in an FOI request and found revealing statistics that provided ammunition for their argument that changes are needed in the area.

You don’t have to use fancy questions, and you can ask for a whole range of information. You can request emails between public officials about a certain subject. You can ask for statistics. And you can ask to see any reports that government generates but never shares with the public. Some may even be marked “confidential.”

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from such requests. But I’ve only scratched the surface. If you turn up something, let your friendly local reporter know (click that “Contact” button at the top of this page).

Email your FOI requests for the provincial government to FOI.Requests@gov.bc.ca. To find where to send requests for your municipality, school district, police department, health authority or university, type the public body’s name into Google and add “freedom of information.” While some bodies may have forms to fill out, your request should be handled if you just email the organization in question.

Tyler Olsen is a reporter at the Abbotsford News

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