Frances Bula header image 2

Journalism pointers: How to get information from city hall without FOI

January 22nd, 2009 · 13 Comments

I see that my learned friends over at Citycaucus noted that I recently got a list of the expenses related to the inauguration of the new Vision Vancouver city council in December. While they seemed pleased to get the information, they weren’t happy that I got it before them when they had asked for the list of expenses in a Freedom of Information request a month ago.

To help out them and all the new bloggers currently invading the civics scene, here is what I teach in my Journalism Research class at Langara when I do the session on FOI. The first rule of FOI is to pick up the phone and ask the right person if you can get the information without having to FOI it. Often you can.

There are no set rules in any government organization specifying what you have to FOI and what you don’t. It sometimes even varies from person to person within a department. So, repeating this one more time, it’s always wise to pick up the phone first.

That’s something that I have to keep reminding myself all the time and I’ve missed more than a couple of scoops because I sat around waiting for my FOI request to come through while someone else just made a call. I’ve even managed to scoop myself, in a way.

I remember putting in an FOI on the cost of former mayor Sam Sullivan’s Project Civil City launch, which involved Norman Stowe’s PACE Group public-relations team, printing costs, hotel rental costs and a few other things, if I’m not mistaken. Anna Lilly, who was in the mayor’s office at the time, took pity on me and let me know during a phone converstion that I could just ask for those expenses, which she promptly gave me. So I ended up getting the information from her before my own FOI request came back. Duh.

Obviously, city hall can’t start answering every random request for information from every citizen who wants to know something. And there are certain pieces of information that it’s pretty standard that you can’t get without an FOI. (Judy Rogers’ and Estelle Lo’s severance payments, for example.) But staff usually are pretty forthcoming with anyone who qualifies as public-serving news media. Granted, that’s a little bit of a hard line to draw these days sometimes, so maybe some of you will have to make the case on that.

Categories: City Hall Talk