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?”

RELATED: Abbotsford residents urge change in high-crash ‘Sumas Prairie Speedway’

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

Just Posted

New virgin queen headlines ‘Bee Day’ at Saanich sanctuary

Taste bee spit and check out the hive at Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary this Sunday

Hills to Shore artists open gardens, studios to public

Annual home artist tour visits 11 locations May 25 and 26

Several hundred SD 62 students team up to clean the shoreline

Effort aimed at keeping Esquimalt and Albert Head Lagoon trash-free

Mom who lost son to brain tumour in March joins the 24th annual Brain Tumour Walk

The Brain Tumour Walk takes place at the University of Victoria on Sunday, May 26

Saanich’s Falcon Gymnastics finish season with three titles at own tournament

Club hosted the 37th annual Garden City Invitational over May long weekend to wrap up season

VIDEO: Canadian, U.S. Coast guards run oil spill response drills

20 vessels were on the water to practice international response methods

POLL: Were you satisfied with the Game of Thrones series finale?

Millions gathered in front of their televisions Sunday night to watch the… Continue reading

Greater Victoria wanted list for the week of May 21

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Young Victoria distillery earns prestigious Scotch awards

Scottish influences range from techniques to ‘kilted tours’ at award-winning business

Municipalities protest after B.C. declares marijuana growing ‘farm use’

UBCM president seeks answers in letter to John Horgan government

CMHC defends mortgage stress test changes amid calls for loosening rules

Uninsured borrowers must now show they could service their mortgage if rates rose two per cent

Brewpub offers ‘boat valet’ for paddlers during Surfrider celebration tonight

Free ‘Surf Formal’ evening features a local art auction, door prizes, live music

Thunderstorms to bring heavy rain, risk of flash floods in the southern Interior

Ten to 30 millimetres of rain to fall over the early weekend

Building a close-knit community in Sooke

Knit 2 Purl Together a community event

Most Read