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FOI’d document a revealing look at city hall attitude to information and media

May 31st, 2011 · 25 Comments

My friend Chad Skelton got a copy of the City of Vancouver’s submission to the Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner, who had surveyed various public agencies for their opinions about FOI policies. (He had to FOI it, of course.)

The submission he got back showed all too clearly what the current administrators think of the whole idea of having to respond to information requests from the media.

(The letter is signed by Penny Ballem and, while I have no doubt that she concurs with the opinions in the submission, I can’t help but think there were others involved. The submission makes a specific reference to Chad and his numerous requests, which is something that the Vancouver police department have seen quite a bit of. But Chad has only FOI’d the city once, to get its records of parking tickets. His series generated from that ended up being requested by the administrator of the parking program to pass out to new trainees.)

The submission sadly reveals what we reporters have been sensing is part of the command-and-control culture shift at city hall, when it comes to getting information.

You can read the words for yourself, but essentially the city’s submission makes the case that reporters file requests haphazardly, doing nothing more than looking for a scoop in order to make money for their employers, and thereby tying up valuable city resources. The city doesn’t support the idea of letting the reporter/individual who requested information get it first, as that just helps the corporate, profit-making media get a competitive edge at the taxpayers’ expense.

There are other choice opinions, including the judgment that reporters ask for information so indiscriminately that they often don’t even remember what they’ve asked for. So why make it easy for them, the conclusion seems to be. They’re just a pack of jackals trying to scavenge a few juicy bits off the bones and making our lives miserable in the process.

This fits right in with the way information continues to be channelled at city hall into tidy sluice boxes that go through corporate communications. Editors don’t encourage reporters to whine about this in news stories, as it’s seen as too insider baseball and not something the public cares about.

But the reality is, those of us who have covered city hall regularly for years and continue to do so are still in a slow burn about what has happened.

It used to be that you could call any staff person at city hall in charge of anything and ask them a question. How many worm composters does the city give out? How many trips a day are made in the city of Vancouver? How many CD-1 rezonings did you have last year?

The person on the other end of the phone would invariably either give you the answer right away or tell you who you should be calling. Sometimes they’d say, I should check with someone higher up before talking to you.

When you got to the right person, not only would s/he give you the answer, but they’d often have additional information. We got these kinds of worm composters because they do this interesting thing. The reason the number of rezonings has gone up/down is because of this. Reporters learned something and we often developed stories from our extra-curricular conversations with the knowledgeable people we talked to. Efficient, educational, and often resulting in new stories.

As some of you know, the city (aka Penny Ballem and new city communications manager Mairi Welman) instituted a new policy last year that EVERYTHING had to be routed through the communications office. No just dialling random people up anymore.

Apparently this was generated because at various points in the last decade, some staff people have occasionally made comments to reporters that weren’t totally and completely in line with city policies. (No mention of the fact, of course, that the most serious media bloopers generated by far in the last few years, ones that caused massive negative headlines for days and shutdowns of various systems in order to contain the flood, have all been made by either council members or the city manager.)

Then, when there was some protest about the new policy, a list of senior people allowed to speak without special permission was developed.

But the reality is this. Even the most senior people can’t speak until a request is also routed to communications. I guess that’s because those senior people, smart as they are, might not see the trap that the evil reporter is laying for them. So the communications people need to know what the interview is about to check for those hidden traps. I’m presuming, of course.

And the more normal procedure is this. You try to get a basic question asked. After four, five, eight emails back and forth between communications and you, where communications people go back and forth between you and some expert behind the screen, an answer if finally produced. But it doesn’t really answer your question. So more emails. More clarification. By now, almost a whole day has passed, if not two. Eventually, the actual person who knows something is perhaps finally cleared to talk to you, since the translation process isn’t working.

Since there are sometimes upwards of 30 reporters trying to get answers to dozens of questions in a week, these has the three or four communications people running the whole time. Not surprisingly, they can’t keep up. (There 600 non-union management staff alone at the hall, most of them specialists and potential interviewees in their areas, not to mention various planners and engineers who are often the best people to talk to in their areas.) So sometimes the communications people forget you asked for something, so then there have to be more reminder emails. It’s all like trying to park a large U-Haul or have sex while wearing a giant plastic bag.

I wouldn’t be surprised, in the end, if the attitude towards regular phone requests is not that different from the opinions expressed about FOI. I’m sure if the disdainful writer of the submission could listen in on phone interviews, that person would be equally appalled at all the staff time being wasted as reporters ask seemingly irrelevant questions or conduct interviews THAT DON’T RESULT IN ANY STORIES AT ALL.

It’s all led to a completely paranoid attitude at city hall. Staffers get freaked if a reporter even steps towards them. I’ve talked to a couple who are worried their emails are being monitored. Some are concerned that the policy is going to extend to people getting fired if they speak without permission.

This, at a time when the city loves to brag about how it has opened up its data to the public and is ushering in a new era of open communications and information. So far, the biggest accomplishment I’ve seen with the open-data project is that people who are too clueless to pin their garbage-collection schedules to the wall in their kitchens can now use an app that tells them what day their garbage will be picked up.

I think I’d trade that for being able to talk to staff who know things again.

Yes, I know we media types are irritating and that it’s all become a lot worse as the line between political bloggers and MSM gets blurred. I know you’re bombarded with what seem like time-wasting FOI requests or requests that are clearly just driven by a gotcha agenda.

But democracy doesn’t always work efficiently or exactly the way we all imagined it would in the ideal world.

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