ICBA’s VP-Communications Jordan Bateman spoke to British Columbia’s Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in Vancouver on Friday, March 4, making the case for government to re-orient how it views information: not as something that belongs to them, but as something that belongs to the public. Here is a transcript of that presentation.
J. Bateman: Thank you for the opportunity to address these important issues, although I must confess on behalf of ICBA we find it disappointing that government convened this committee after passing what we consider to be a very regressive bill 22. We would have much preferred that bill had been held back until this process could have unfolded.
Nonetheless, it’s important to put on the record our concerns about B.C.’s freedom of information laws. I’m going to concentrate more on the FOI request side, because that’s a lot of what we do.
I have a unique view of these rules. I was trained and I worked as a newspaper reporter. Then, I was elected to two terms as a Langley township councillor, and then finally I’ve been working as an advocate for the past decade for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and now the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association.
So, while I represent ICBA today as vice-president and communications of an organization with more than 3,500 construction businesses as members employing 125,000 British Columbia workers, I assure you I would have made the same presentation today no matter where I was employed. FOI is important to me.
My first FOI request came in 1995 as a young, bright-eyed journalism student at Langara College. It was part of our course curriculum, learning how to file FOI requests federally. I must confess, 25 years later I cannot remember, I try to wrack my brain, what was that FOI for? I thought that would be a funny story. I can’t recall it, but filing such requests would become an important tool in my toolbox of holding governments accountable.
A decade after that, I was elected to township council in Langley, and the subject of a few FOI requests. The irony was never lost on me. In my advocacy career, I filed hundreds of requests, many of which have uncovered important government waste stories. For example, TransLink spending $40,000 a pop on TV screens at SkyTrain stations, and only seven of the 16 of them being functional a year later.
There was my all-time favorite FOI find, which was a training exercise by the transit police aboard an Air Canada passenger liner. They were training their explosive sniffing dogs. Except that they got home, the officer and the dog, and opened up and counted and suddenly realized they had left a piece of C4 on that plane. They guarded dumpsters. They searched the plane seven times.
By the way, by that time, the plane was en route with passengers back to Toronto. The transit police hid the whole thing. They had press releases ready to go. They had information ready to go. They never released it. We were told by a whistleblower and we released that information and it changed the way that the transit police train their animals. It also changed what Air Canada do to cooperate with police, as far as training exercises. They didn’t make that mistake again.
So those are ready to go. They had information ready to go. They never released it. We were told by a whistleblower, and we released that information and it changed the way that the transit police train their animals. Also changed what Air Canada will do to cooperate with police as far as training exercises. They didn’t make that mistake again.
So those are splashy stories of waste, but information uncovered through FOIs I filed have created lasting public policy change. Leading into the 2017 provincial election, all three major political parties in B.C. agreed that they would scrap the hated medical services premium tax. What led to this stunning agreement among usually disagreeable political adversaries? Public pressure amplified by a campaign by the Taxpayers Federation, which was anchored by my FOI research work.
It was through FOI that I uncovered that more than 850,000 MSP accounts, every one of them belonging to a B.C. resident, were overdue, amounting to half a billion dollars in uncollected premiums. Some 300,000 of those payments were 90 days or more past due. It was through FOI that I uncovered that more than $340 million in bad MSP debt had been written off by the B.C. government in the previous few years. It was through FOI that I uncovered the cost of collecting the tax was skyrocketing from $53 million in 2013 to $77 million two years later.
For years, I used FOI and other means to push back on that issue, to educate politicians and to get the media to write stories to bring some heat to the topic, until finally, MSP was scrapped. Another public policy thing — I’ve seen instances of the current government attacking the so-called scourge of repeated requests. People like Bob Mackin. He gets spoken of in hated tones because he does repeated requests. But repeated requests through FOI is precisely why we have proactive MLA expense reports posted today, for example.
Mackin, myself, others made a practice to FOI expenses in the mid-2010s until finally, politicians got the message and started posting them proactively. If government’s upset about repeat requests for calendars or spending reports or other monthly recurring reports, you could save more time and more money by proactively disclosing that information. Today, my FOI requests are a lot less exciting than building cases against politicians, bureaucrats or public bodies wasting taxpayer money.
Our most regular request at ICBA now is to the Industry Training Authority, soon to be SkilledTradesBC, for apprenticeship numbers. Until last year, ITA published quarterly reports detailing how many trades apprentices were being sponsored by associations, unions and companies, often breaking it down — well, always breaking it down — by gender, by Indigenous background as well as overall title, overall numbers.
While they wouldn’t give industry-wide totals, they would list the top sponsors. ICBA. We knew this, because we were the number one sponsor — still are — of trades apprentices in B.C. Through FOI, we built on that knowledge. We learned that ICBA and our open shot members sponsor 82 percent of trade apprentices in B.C., a statistic that no one wanted to release from the ITA.
We don’t get those reports any more. ITA quit putting them out last year, and you could read political reasons into that. But now, we have to FOI them. Every quarter, we have to send an FOI request for apprenticeship numbers that were released up to a year ago. It doesn’t make any sense. If the Premier and the minister and MLAs…. If you’re truly concerned about FOI officers’ time, that’s where the waste is. Forcing these people to go and request these numbers that we know exist within the government database system, because they were being produced in a report one year ago.
I know that Chris Atchison from the B.C. Construction Association presented earlier. I know he spoke a lot about procurement, so I won’t touch too much on that, but vital to the construction industry is knowing that contracts are being properly handled. Being able to know that there is light in that process. Not just for the protection of the taxpayer — making sure they get the best value for money — but also for the companies to learn, “Hey, oh this is why I didn’t get that contract,” and to improve their bids going forward. Better bids just mean better value for government money.
Our message to this committee is clear. B.C. freedom-of-information laws need to be reoriented around one principle: that this information belongs to taxpayers, not to the government. This should be the lens through which FOI is viewed. That government should be forced to justify why something is not being made public, not the public forced to justify why we should have access to it. There should be stiff penalties for any official who delays FOI releases.
When I was with the CTF, an FOI request with TransLink, asking for employee severance package information, TransLink ignored our legal right to that information and held it for seven months, admitting later to the Information Commissioner that the completed report sat on the CEO’s desk for almost that entire time.
The B.C. Information Commissioner found that TransLink broke the law, however, no legal repercussions, of course, for the TransLink officials for this blatant disregard of our rights. They simply carried on. Business as usual. No fine. No sanction. No discipline.
If information is the currency of democracy, as Thomas Jefferson is believed to have said, British Columbia is going broke. Taxpayers deserve far better when it comes to open, accountable government.
I realize most citizens will go their entire lives without filing a freedom-of-information request or even thinking about a freedom-of-information request. But every single one of them benefits from the information dug out of government through FOI requests by journalists, researchers, advocacy groups and others. Slapping a fee on these requests is unfair and, I believe, morally wrong. This committee should recommend that this fee be scrapped immediately.
It’s not just the information itself that is valuable. Taxpayers benefit from the accountability that comes with politicians and bureaucrats knowing that their work, reports and communications could end up in the public record. We’ve all been — I’m a retired elected official, happily — elected officials. We’ve all had that thought or had someone say to us: “Think about everything you do as if it could land on the front page of the Vancouver Sun.” That is an important piece of accountability that needs to continue within the public service.
As those of us who work in advocacy know, vigilance is paramount when dealing with government. No victory nor any defeat is ever final when it comes to democracy. A strong, effective Freedom of Information Act, where citizens have a legal mechanism to obtain information from their government, is a key part of maintaining that vigilance. It’s worth reminding ourselves that. Wherever we sit in the House, on whichever side, we have seen, over the past 100 and something years of B.C. history, that the sides switch every time and that what you put in place to prevent the opposition from doing one day may come back to bite you when you yourselves are in opposition down the road.
Again, it’s about looking at this through the proper lens. Bob Mackin isn’t wasting taxpayer money by filing FOI requests. The government is wasting taxpayer money by not proactively releasing important, fundamental information by taking up the Information and Privacy Office’s time with ludicrous, heavy-handed attempts to shut people down.
Bill 22 was deeply disappointing to many of us. Listen, I worked alongside with the Taxpayers Federation, and NDP MLAs were some of the most vocal critics of FOI legislation, the way things were being handled then. I thought you were allies in the fight for more information to be released and for FOI to work better. That bill was a dark step backwards, a long step backwards, and it’s frustrating.
There’s a cost to operating a free society where taxpayers can access information supposedly held in trust by government on their behalf. Democracy isn’t cheap. But the government’s efforts in shoving Bill 22 and an FOI fee through before this committee could sit — that was cheap.
ICBA is a proud member of the B.C. Freedom of Information Privacy Association. We’re a sponsor of their social media campaign. We were one of the first groups to join their coalition against Bill 22, and we stood shoulder to shoulder with dozens of groups — many of whom do not agree with us on anything else, any other public policy facing British Columbia, don’t share our ideology, don’t share our history — but we all stood in lockstep agreeing that the government’s actions on FOI with Bill 22 were repugnant.
So I encourage this committee to consider the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’s recommendations — I believe they’re coming next Friday — very closely, to ban fees on FOI requests and to reorient how we all look at this information, properly identifying it as belonging to the public and being a trust that politicians and public servants hold on behalf of the public.
We’ve been a part of the process — although actually I’m not sure if I’m supposed to show that it exists already — that B.C. FIPPA has put together for their recommendations. We were part of the process before they came up with the recommendations, before they actually asked us what our thoughts were. They wanted to hear from us about what construction and taxpayers and others were feeling. Very pleased with the document that they’ve put together. These are well-reasoned, smart recommendations. I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing this committee endorse in full.
That’s it. Thank you for your time. I know that this committee was formed after Bill 22 was brought in. I know that’s not necessarily your faults. But I do appreciate the opportunity to talk and get this off my chest. FOI is…. Like I said, it’s been an important thing to me and my career for the past 25 years. It’s something I believe very passionately about. So thank you.
H. Yao: Thank you so much, Jordan, for your presentation. We really appreciate your time here. I do have a…. Obviously, basically, you recall there are two layers to it. One is talking about removal of a fee. The second one is a proactive information release. I want to dig a bit more around proactive information release with you, if you don’t mind. Bear with me for my lack of knowledge. I’m a new MLA. I’m still learning as I go.
J. Bateman: Sure.
H. Yao: Is there actually some kind of means or protocol mechanism to allow community groups such as yourself to say: “Let’s collectively figure out which information needs to be proactively released?” And the government has a proper channel to allow that information to be passed on to the appropriate ministries? Or is that just some kind of another — I hate to use the term — fighting in muddy water? You just have to figure out which ministry…. It’s a loose end that’s no real centralized or streamlined method.
J. Bateman: From the view outside of government, I would say there doesn’t seem to be any streamlined method. Certainly, we’ve never been asked what information we want to have proactively disclosed. The easiest way to do it would probably be to review the categories of freedom-of-information requests over the past several years.
You know, if suddenly we were put in charge of the Institute Training Authority, we’d look at it and say, “Well, gosh. We get asked this every quarter. What’s the problem? We’re going to release it. Under the law, we will release it eventually, so why don’t we just do it proactively?” It would be an interesting reallocation of some FOI officer’s time to actually review that and find those different opportunities to release information.
With MLA expenses, I believe it was LAMC, Legislative Management Committee, that finally pulled the trigger on that. I used to rag on poor Mike de Jong over and over again about what was taking so long. I knew he believed in it, and I knew he was trying to push it, but it just took a long time to get that mechanism going. That was the last time I can recall being asked about information that should be proactively released.
H. Yao: If you don’t mind, I have a follow-up question for that too. You mentioned quite a few examples of information that used to be released and they can retract it. Is there any kind of mechanism that — and again, bear with me on this one — government has to demonstrate before they can retract any previously proactively released information?
J. Bateman: No. Not that I’m aware of, at least.
J. Rustad (Deputy Chair): A funny little story about being called something different. As a minister, I was on a panel with a mining conference, and I was introduced as John Horgan.
Yeah, the mining industry has never lived that one down yet.
One thing that really stuck out here to me is that information should belong to the taxpayer and not government. I think that’s a very important principle. The whole purpose behind freedom of information, when it first came about 25 years or more ago in British Columbia, was as a tool for people to be able to get access to information, because there wasn’t an easy way to be able to provide that information back then. The world has changed dramatically, obviously, since then.
I’ve been asking the same question to other people that present to us, which is: should we be doing a complete rethink of freedom of information? Technology has changed to the point where everything and anything essentially is digital already. It would be simple to have it released, with the exception of rules and regulations that we could be put in place as to what can’t be released so that we can actually eliminate this treadmill of requests for freedom of information. I often think now that the act is more restrictions of information as opposed to freedom of information.
In your experience going through in the past, how do you think something like that could work, just in terms of government transparency?
J. Bateman: I think you sever out the personal information that government holds on behalf of individuals — the students that we heard Teri Mooring just speak about. So you sever that out, but on the art of policy crafting, the statistics that are being measured, you’re right. It should be considered a sacred trust.
One thing I love about new MLAs is how they walk into the Legislature the first time, and they’re kind of in awe of it, right? And I think it lasts…. For those of you who have been elected a long time, you can correct me if I’m wrong. But my sense is that it lasts. Like, there’s this sense of: “This is a sacred trust, this building. I’m here. I’m sitting in the chamber. This is where Davey Barrett sat and W.A.C. Bennett sat.” There’s this kind of sense that you’re a steward, for a time, of this place.
That is really the same kind of mindset you need to take to the information. The information that the public trusts to the government and to the myriad of public agencies is a trust held on behalf of the public. If we treated it the same way — “We’re stewards of this for a time, but it’s the people’s House, and it’s the people’s information” — how do we actually get that out to folks?
There are ways now to publish…. Publishing content online is cheap. This is not an expensive function. Even if it was, it doesn’t have to be a light switch overnight. It can be progress you make over three, four years, constantly adding more things into public disclosure.
Ten years ago they tried to do that with open data, especially around mapping. There was a lot of that. Those get used constantly. Open data portals are not used by a huge number of people. But the people who use them…. It’s important in crafting other things, going forward.
So it’s about just changing the mindset to: “We’re stewards of this information. We want to protect the personal stuff, but we want people to know how we get to certain decisions. We want people to be able to measure how those decisions have affected their everyday lives.”
That’s a longer conversation. It would mean a lot more work for a committee like this to kind of come to that mindset. But rather than constantly trying to tweak and re-tweak older legislation, it’s probably time to do that.
J. Rustad (Deputy Chair): If I could, just in terms of a follow-up. We live in a real-time world, where everything is instantaneous nowadays. If something happens, then you know about it within minutes, if not sooner.
What would a realistic expectation be for the release of information if you were to be going through this process? I’ll raise things like…. For example, MLAs are travelling. They’re staying in a hotel. They might be concerned about their own safety or what other people could use that information for. So you wouldn’t necessarily want things like that released in real time. But is a month, two months down the road…? What would be a reasonable period of time to be thinking about making sure that information could be made available?
J. Bateman: You have to wait for things like expenses. You have to wait till the bills come in, right? Then they have to be paid and processed, so there are all those different things. So it would just depend on the information.
I mean, you talked about the real-time aspect of it. While we were…. I swear I was paying attention to the previous speaker, but I was also checking Facebook and Twitter. Today Russia turned off Facebook in their country, because they didn’t like what was bleeding across the board. It just happened within the past hour. Just like that, they turned off Facebook.
So let’s not go…. We’ve got to be careful a little bit here as to how far we go. But there is that…. It should be timely, the information release, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be immediate — you know, you charge something on your credit card, or the CEO of B.C. Housing charges something on his credit card, and it suddenly appears immediately on a portal somewhere. If it takes 30, 60, 90 days, depending on what it is, that’s fine.
And it will depend…. For information for researchers, academic researchers, rather than advocates…. Advocates will want it immediately. That’s just the nature of advocacy. They’ll want it as quickly as practically possible. Researchers probably would prefer a little bit of a trend line, so they’re a little bit more patient as far as that information comes.
Again, that’s the problem, right? You’re talking about a proactive disclosure. I think it’s proactive disclosure as a principle and then trying to find the right measure for individual pieces of information.
A. Olsen: I was just going to say that I think I completely agree. The information is the public’s. I would expand it to more than the taxpayer. I recognize that the language that you’ve used for many numbers of years, Jordan, has been around the taxpayer. I think, if you were to join that up with the fees aspect of it, not all British Columbians are taxpayers. They live here, and they might not pay directly to taxes. So just making sure that the public information remains in the public, I would say, is probably the only quibble I have with the comments that you made.
J. Bateman: Absolutely, sure. Old habits, Adam. Old habits die hard for me.
A. Olsen: Thank you for your presentation today.
J. Bateman: Can I make one note, as well? Just something from the previous speaker that I want to note. There was a lot of conversation during Bill 22 about how silly requests were to, you know, look at apps that the Premier had downloaded. I would point out that you just spent a long time discussing the privacy policies around apps. Perhaps it is a perfectly legitimate request to ask what apps are on the Premier’s phone, since there are privacy policies that he clicked for every single one of them. And if he’s anything like Adam and me, he’s never read a word of those privacy policies. He’s a busy guy, so I don’t blame him.
I just wanted to throw that out there before. I had written a note when Teri spoke.
Sorry to use your question like that, Adam, for a completely irrelevant piece of….
A. Olsen: No, because it absolutely builds on something, because if you take a look at TikTok, for example, there are articles that were just released recently with respect to the back door that basically TikTok…. And they’re not quite clear exactly what it is, but the ability to surveil a phone with TikTok on it is remarkable, and the ability to have that surveillance continue long after the fact that you think it might be gone is even more remarkable. So you raise an important point.
J. Bateman: I live with a wannabe 15-year-old TikToker, so we’ve had this conversation many times in our house. It’s a hard one.
R. Glumac (Chair): I don’t see any further questions. Thank you very much, Jordan, for your presentation.
J. Bateman: Thank you for your time. I appreciate it.