My $3,000 FOIPOP or Why This System Doesn’t Work

In the world of the start-up digital publications, $3,000 is a lot of money.

Had I $3,000 burning a hole in my pocket, I could walk into Connors Basics on Charlotte Street and come out with a new desk, a new office chair, a lifetime supply of roller ball pens, a stash of inkjet printer cartridges and a time clock (which I don’t really need, given I set my own hours, but have always wanted to use — I blame Fred Flintstone) and still have money left over for coffee.

Or…I could give the full $3,000 to the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education in return for a few dozen pages of information.

How to choose?


Physical search

If you read my story about Municipal Enterprises (Dexter Construction) and its enthusiastic use of Nova Scotia’s Workplace Innovation and Productivity Skills Incentive (WIPSI) program, you’ll know that as a result of someone’s freedom of information/protection of privacy (FOIPOP) request, I discovered that since 2010, Carl Potter’s company has applied for the program — which subsidizes training — 19 times.

I know that between 2015/16 and 2016/17 the company received such funding 10 times and that several of these applications involved training provided by the Dexter Institute, which is part of the Municipal Group.

The Department of Labour and Advanced Training wouldn’t say whether the company’s previous nine applications had been successful, so I had to submit a FOIPOP request of my own to find out. I paid the $5 application fee and requested a list of successful WIPSI funding applications from the program’s inception in 2010 to end-2013. I wanted the name of the company, the amount of funding received, the date funding was approved and the institution providing the training.

Here’s the response I received:

In relation to your application for WIPSI records, I have spoken with the Department’s program unit responsible for searching for the records.

The records you are seeking begin in 2010, and you have requested each year from 2010 to the end of 2013. I have been advised by the business unit that not all the information you have asked for can be recovered electronically. A significant portion requires physically searching each file individually.

The requirement to physically search the paper files has been estimated at 100 hours of staff time. The Act allows us to charge an applicant at the rate of $30.00/hour.

Therefore, based on your initial application, the additional fee estimate to search and produce the records you have requested is $3,000.00.


Duty to document

Clerk in the NS Department of Labour and Advanced Training recording WIPSI data? (Engraving by C. Guttenberg after F. van Mieris, <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">CC by 4.0</a>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Clerk in the NS Department of Labour and Advanced Training recording WIPSI data? (Engraving by C. Guttenberg after F. van Mieris, CC by 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

It seems worth pointing out that I am not looking for records from the 1970s — I’m asking for records dating to 2010. Such records should obviously be recoverable “electronically.”

I am actually hard pressed to imagine the record-keeping scenario implied by the Department of Labour’s response to my request. Are we to understand companies applied for WIPSI funding on paper; bureaucrats wrote each other letters to evaluate those applications; decisions were made and money awarded via paper and the only information recorded “electronically” was the name of the company and the amount of funding? The rest was preserved in written form?

In what world does that make sense?

I would argue that in 2017, the failure to record such information electronically is a de facto failure to document. Preserving information in a physical format requiring a physical search for which you can charge an applicant $30 an hour is the same, ultimately, as not preserving the information at all: who is going to pay $3,000 for a few dozen pages of data?

Not this start-up digital publication, that’s for sure. Maybe that’s a way the federal government could help the news industry — pay Nova Scotia’s exorbitant  FOIPOP fees for us. I bet the feds wouldn’t be too long picking up those bills before they started leaning on the provincial government to waive the fees entirely.

After all, as Paul Conrod of the NS Right to Know Coalition told me last year:

Better practice access to information systems around the world, including in many developing countries, do not charge anything for responding to information requests, beyond the fees the agency actually incurs in reproducing and delivering the information.

Mexico and Nepal, for instance, do a better job of it than we do.



Catherine Tully’s latest report, although it called for the $5 application fee to be waived, didn’t recommend these other fees be waived and her call for a “duty to document” rule, although laudable, didn’t specify that that documentation be electronic. Even if the government implemented all the report’s recommendations, the Department of Labour and Advanced Education could still request $3,000 to comb through its post-millennial paper records for information.

As CBC reporter Dean Beeby said of the dysfunctional federal access to information system:

There’s been real shenanigans. The bureaucracy knows where the loopholes are and they exploit them.

Beeby characterized the federal bureaucracy as “reflexively secretive.” Judging by the response to my FOIPOP request, our provincial bureaucracy shares that trait.


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