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COMMENTARY · 27th September 2010
Mary McNeil
This week in British Columbia, we are celebrating your right to access information through Right to Know Week. From Sept. 27 to Oct. 1, Right to Know Week is recognized throughout the province and across the country as a way to promote freedom of information worldwide. I would like to use this week as an opportunity to bring awareness to the Freedom of Information and Protect of Privacy Act that provides all citizens with the right to access to information and engage in the democratic process.

In 1992, the province passed the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that we have today. The act gives people the legal right of access to records in the custody of public bodies, while at the same time protecting the privacy of citizens' personal information.

Government has taken action to improve the handling of requests for information across government. A new, centralized structure has led to an improvement in service and faster response times. Since 2001, information request response times have gone from an average of 71 to 24 business days. In fact, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner's latest report on response times noted a 90-per cent compliance rate in responding to FOI requests. Much of the credit for this is due to the efforts of our staff who have worked hard to reach this benchmark while dealing with a 16-per cent increase in information requests, many of which are increasingly complex.

Recently we have been investigating new approaches and technologies that will allow us to serve citizens better. This summer, we had great success in our use of social media to provide up to the minute information on B.C.'s wildfires. Over 12 thousand people joined the conservation on Facebook and connected with other residents to find out about forest fires, air quality, campfire bans and driving conditions. People shared photographs, stories and sent their thanks to our firefighters.

Over and above using social media tools for sharing public safety information, we also want to use these tools to engage people in the transformation of government services, policies and practices. Although moving in this direction is not easy, our Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act did not anticipate today's technology. Existing legislation to protect personal privacy was not necessarily designed to accommodate social media.

Finding the balance, while achieving freedom of information and privacy protection is a challenging task. As a government, how do we find this balance in the world of social media and the increasingly open access to information? How do we make data more open and accessible while addressing issues around protection of privacy?

Such complex questions require careful consideration. I have already met with B.C.'s new Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham. I'm looking forward to an ongoing dialogue with commissioner on information access and privacy. So in this week that celebrates your right to know I encourage everyone to find out how you can access information and participate in the democratic process.

Visit the Office of the Chief Information Officer website at www.cio.gov.bc.ca for more information and to exercise your right to know.