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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Saanich roads doused in more than 300 tonnes of salt during snowstorm

Crews cleared roads around the clock during the mid-January storm

Hydro pole fire closes portion of Metchosin Road in Colwood

Motorists are advised to avoid the area of Metchosin Road near Royal Bay

Funds raised through off-road cycling event will help improve Central Saanich bike trails

Tripleshot Cycling Club presents $3,000 cheque to Nature Trails Society

‘We thought it was an earthquake,’ homeowners okay after tree falls

Mature tree falls on roof of Victoria Avenue house

VIDEO: The Victoria byelection leads a selection of today’s news stories

A selection of Greater Victoria top stories for Jan. 17

Theft victim confronts suspects with baseball bat on Vancouver Island

RCMP in Nanaimo seek to identify of two people alleged to have used a stolen credit card

Closed mills, housing surge support a positive forecast for lumber industries

B.C. lumber producers have closed mills accounting for 18% of province’s capacity, RBC report says

Kelowna’s ‘Baby Mary’ finds biological parents after more than 30 years

Geneologist and DNA test helped her connect with her biological parents

Clerk bruised, traumatized after armed robbery at Nanaimo liquor store

Few details on male suspect in Wednesday incident, says Nanaimo RCMP

One last blast of winter tonight for parts of the Island before temperatures on the rise

A snowfall warning is in effect Friday including east Vancouver Island.

POLL: Has the recent snow had an impact on your daily life?

Old Man Winter had Greater Victoria in his icy grip this week.… Continue reading

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Jan. 14

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

‘Scariest boat ride of my life’: Passengers trapped by ice on rocky B.C. ferry sailing

The Nimpkish docked in Bella Coola on Jan.12 coated in a thick layer of ice

Most Read