How many FOI requests should my institution expect to receive?

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Every year, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPCO) publishes a statistical report which shows how many FOI requests each institution in Ontario received in a given year, as well as other statistics related to the performance of each institution’s FOI program, such as how many requests were completed in a given year, how many were completed within the standard 30-day deadline, and how many were completed but took more than 30 days due to the issuance of a Notice of Extension or a Notice of Affected Third Parties.

What I find most interesting is that the annual statistical reports reveal how many FOI requests each institution received, and correspondingly, which institutions receive the most FOI requests.  Under FIPPA, the vast majority of requests appear to be processed by just a few institutions.  It’s also interesting to see just how many requests are processed by municipal institutions under MFIPPA vs. by provincial institutions under FIPPA.  The municipal institutions appear to process far more requests under MFIPPA than I would have expected—particularly police services, and the municipalities themselves.

Let’s take a closer look at the results from the most recent (2017) statistical report.  As we’ll see, the number of FOI requests your institution can expect to receive in a year varies widely depending on the institution; some receive thousands, while many others receive fewer than ten a year.

Requests by the Public under FIPPA/MFIPPA

There were 59,807 freedom of information (FOI) requests filed across Ontario in 2017, a slight decrease vs. 2016 where 61,587 were filed.  Municipal requests under MFIPPA accounted for 35,982 of all requests, and provincial requests under FIPPA accounted for the remaining 23,825 requests.

For municipal institutions personal information requests represented the greatest number of their requests received, with 18,301 requests for personal information and slightly fewer, 17,681, for general records.  In contrast, for provincial institutions, requests for general records were about twice as common as requests for personal information, with 16,605 requests for general records vs. only 7,220 for personal information.

Of the 35,929 requests completed by municipal institutions under MFIPPA, only 8,813 resulted in all of the requested information being disclosed.  A partial disclosure of information was more common, occurring in 19,254 cases.  In 3,499 cases, no information was disclosed.  The requestor was informed that no responsive records exist in 2,339 cases, and the request was withdrawn, abandoned, or found to be non-jurisdictional in 2,182 cases.

What I think is the interesting takeaway here is that in the majority of cases, requestors don’t receive all of the information they requested – it seems exemptions are being applied to municipal disclosures more often than not, although another explanation might be that for some requests, some responsive records are disclosed but no responsive records exist for a portion of the request.

For provincial institutions responding to requests under FIPPA, the results are similar.  Of the 25,930 requests completed by municipalities, only 6,034 resulted in all of the requested information being disclosed.  A partial disclosure of information was more common, occurring in 9,369 cases.  In 1,500 cases, no information was disclosed.  The requestor was informed that no responsive records exist in 6,366 cases, and the request was withdrawn, abandoned, or found to be non-jurisdictional in 2,693 cases.  The portion of requests where the requestor is told no responsive records exist is much higher for provincial institution requests (25%) vs. for municipal requests (7%).  Perhaps requestors are less familiar with what kinds of records are stored by provincial institutions, and are more likely to make requests for records that may or may not exist.

Municipal institutions collected $173,078.59 in application fees and $436,405.71 in additional fees (such as search and processing fees) for a total of $609,484.30 in FOI fees collected.  Divided across the 35,929 requests completed by municipal institutions, this results in average fees of about $16.96 per request.  Considering the work involved in processing an FOI file, I find this result surprisingly low.  Perhaps many of the requests received by municipal institutions are of a routine nature, and of course, 18,301 of the requests were for personal information, where no search fees can be charged.  The total fees waived by municipal institutions in 2017 was just $47,570.83, so it appears fee waivers are somewhat uncommon overall.

Provincial institutions collected $103,862.45 in application fees and $400,480.33 in additional fees for a total of $504,342.78 in FOI fees collected by provincial institutions.  The total fees waived were $13,850.59, far less than the fees waived by municipal institutions, even taking the lower volume of FOI files handled by provincial institutions into account.

The total FOI fees collected by both provincial and municipal institutions in 2017 was $1,113,827.08.  It would be interesting to compare this figure collected against staffing costs at the various provincial and municipal institutions.  I’m guessing the cost of dedicated FOI staff alone would be at least an order of magnitude higher than the fees collected in any given year, never mind the time spent by non-FOI staff involved in answering FOI requests.  As a very rough estimate, an INFO-GO search for anyone with either “FIPPA”, “Privacy” or “FOI” in their title resulted in over 80 employees.  “FOI” alone resulted in 44 employees, and it’s probably safe to assume these people are for the most part 100% dedicated to FOI files.  Now, 80 employees with an average annual cost per employee of about $75,000 a year would mean staffing costs of around $6,000,000 per year – about twelve times higher than the 504,342.78 collected by provincial institutions in fees.

Provincial Institutions

The top 10 provincial institutions who received the most requests under FIPPA were:

  • Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, with 9,022 requests received;
  • Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, with 5,429 requests received;
  • Ministry of Community and Social Services, with 2,374 requests received;
  • Ministry of Labour, with 1,042 requests received;
  • Landlord and Tenant Board, with 553 requests received;
  • Ministry of the Attorney General, with 485 requests received;
  • Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, with 455 requests received;
  • Ministry of Transportation, with 371 requests received;
  • Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, with 293 requests received; and
  • Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, with 236 requests received.

I find it interesting to see that the top provincial institution receives nearly as many requests as the remaining nine combined, and similarly, the second provincial institution on the list receives nearly as many requests than the remaining eight institutions on the list combined.

The 2017 Statistical Report includes a list of how many FOI requests were received by each of Ontario’s Provincial Institutions excluding colleges, universities and hospitals.  Although the “Top 10” institutions listed above each received hundreds of requests, the vast majority received fewer than 100 requests, with many receiving fewer than ten.  By my count, 4 provincial institutions (excluding colleges, universities and hospitals) received over 1,000 requests in 2017; 14 such provincial institutions received fewer than 1,000 but at least 100 requests in 2017; 26 received fewer than 100 but at least 10 requests in 2017; 41 received fewer than 10 but at least 1 request in 2017, and 3 received zero FOI requests in 2017,  including the “Ontario Pesticides Advisory Committee”.  (Shouldn’t someone be more curious?)

Of course, the number of FOI requests received doesn’t directly correspond to workload – it could take less work to process 100 routine requests than one particularly complicated media request for thousands of documents – but these statistics help paint a picture of how many requests most institutions are receiving.

Hospitals

The FOI request numbers for hospitals were far more consistent than for the ministries, agencies, boards and commissions described in the previous section.  About 20% of hospitals received more than 10 requests in 2017.  Most hospitals received at least one request but fewer than 10.

The top 10 hospitals with the most FOI requests were:

  • Sensenbrenner Hospital, with 73 requests received;
  • North of Superior Healthcare Group, with 56 requests received;
  • London Health Sciences Centre, with 46 requests received;
  • Hôpital Smooth Rock Falls Hospital, with 37 requests received;
  • The University Health Network, with 25 requests received;
  • William Osler Health Centre, with 25 requests received;
  • Alexandra Marine and General Hospital, with 24 requests received;
  • Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre, with 20 requests received;
  • The Hospital for Sick Children, with 20 requests received; and
  • Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, with 19 requests received.

Colleges and Universities

The University of Toronto was the stand-out here, with 108 requests received in 2017.  It was followed by Ryerson University with 51 and the University of Ottawa with 46.  All of the other colleges and universities received fewer than 30 requests in 2017.  15 colleges and universities received between 10 and 30 requests in 2017, and the remaining 18 colleges received between 1 and 9 requests.  Every college and university in Ontario received at least one FOI request in 2017.

Municipal Institutions

I was surprised at the volume of requests received by a relatively small number of municipal institutions.  The top municipal institution in terms of the number of requests received in 2017 was the Toronto Police Service, with 5,500 requests, followed by the City of Toronto itself with 2,864 requests.  Police services dominate the next top spots, with Niagara Regional Police Service having 1,255 requests, York Regional Police having 1,543, and Durham Regional Police Service, Peel Regional Police Serivce, Hamilton Regional Police Serivce, Halton Regional Police Service, Waterloo Regional Police Service and Ottawa Police Service all receiving over 1,000 requests in 2017.  The Town of Oakville is next on the list, with 1,005 requests received in 2017, followed by the City of Kitchener, the London Police Service, the City of Mississauga and the City of Ottawa with nearly as many (each over 800).  Aside from city governments and police services, the only municipal institution which appeared in the Top 30 by requests received was Ottawa Community Housing, in the 30th position on the list with 195 requests received in 2017.

School Boards

Among school boards, the District School Board of Niagara stood out as receiving 178 requests in 2018.  In comparison, the closest runner-up, Halton Catholic District School Board, received only 59; the next few school boards on the list, Toronto District School Board, Halton District School Board, York Region District School Board and Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario all received between 30 and 40 requests.  Most Ontario school boards received fewer than 10 requests in 2017.

Health Units

Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit received 62 requests in 2017, Huron County Health Unit received 42, and Windsor-Essex County Health Unit received 21.  Other health units in Ontario all received fewer than 20 requests in 2017.

Conclusions and Final Impressions

I was most surprised to see just how high the volumes were for requests received by municipal corporations and police services.  In hindsight, perhaps I should have expected that these kinds of institutions, with their frequent direct interactions with members of the public, would receive high levels of interest from individuals seeking access to information.  But it surprises me that the typical municipal police service appears to receive far more requests than the typical provincial ministry, agency, board or commission, and likewise, that municipal corporations rank along-side police services as some of the highest-volume recipients of FOI requests.

I encourage readers to take a look at IPCO’s Annual Reports and Annual Statistical Reports for yourselves.  Links are provided below.

I encourage you to refer this article to a colleague, and to subscribe to the FOI Assist blog.  To subscribe, simply enter your email address at the bottom of the page then click the follow button.

Links to Resources:

Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPCO) Annual Reports and Annual Statistical Reports:  https://www.ipc.on.ca/about-us/annual-reports/

INFO-GO: Government of Ontario Employee and Organization Directory: http://www.infogo.gov.on.ca/infogo/

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