FOI Requests Dropped Sharply During COVID-19

No, it isn’t your imagination

After increasing slightly over the previous three years (2017-2019), the number of Freedom of Information (“FOI”) requests filed to provincial and municipal institutions in Ontario dropped by 27% in 2020, from 60,394 requests filed across the province in 2019 down to 44,167 requests filed in 2020. This drop occurred during a year dominated by the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These figures became available recently with the release of the Ontario Privacy Commissioner’s 2020 Annual Report and its associated 2020 Statistical Report and Full Statsitics for 2020. The Privacy Commissioner generates these statistics using the Year-End Statistical Reports submitted by each institution in Ontario under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (“FIPPA”) and the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (“MFIPPA”).

The 27% drop occurred in spite of “a 25 per cent increase in requests for access to and correction of personal health information”, suggesting the lighter workload was not spread evenly across all institutions.

Let’s take a deeper dive and look into how the drop was experienced at some of the highest-volume provincial institutions:

Institution20192020% change
WSIB223185(17%)
LCBO183101(45%)
OLGC10793(13%)
OSC1008(92%)
Metrolinx7051(27%)
U. Toronto505612%
U. Ottawa3632(11%)
York U.255(80%)
Solicitor General (Ministry)58454749(19%)
Social Services (Ministry) 32722614(20%)
Environment (Ministry) 88906960(21%)
Government Services (Ministry) 498345(31%)
Transportation (Ministry) 423290(31%)
Change in number of FOI requests received by institution year-over-year

And at some of the highest-volume municipal institutions:

Institution20192020% change
City of Toronto27892036(27%)
Town of Oakville870554(36%)
City of Mississauga856634(26%)
City of Ottawa869502(42%)
City of Kitchener82286(90%)
City of Cambridge555155(72%)
Region of Peel320273(15%)
City of Vaughan256193(25%)
Corporation City of London256201(21%)
City of Oshawa198121(39%)
District School Board of Niagara23730428%
Toronto District School Board43455%
Ottawa-Carleton District School Board319(71%)
Toronto Police Service52342999(43%)
York Regional Police17441377(21%)
Durham Regional Police Service16401268(23%)
Hamilton Police Service15751018(35%)
Peel Regional Police1422890(37%)
Halton Regional Police Service13781032(25%)
Niagara Regional Police Service14241017(29%)
Waterloo Regional Police Service1133959(15%)
London Police Service1072649(39%)
Windsor Police Service917515(44%)
Change in number of FOI requests received by institution year-over-year

These decreases likely arrived at just the right time for provincial and municipal institutions who have been struggling with new work arrangements while also dealing with the consequences of the pandemic to the public. As noted in the 2020 Annual Report, the Privacy Commissioner’s offices closed abruptly in March 2020 and they began working from home, along with many other government organizations and businesses in Ontario and around the world.

What’s Happening Now, And What’s Next?

Although official statistics for 2021 won’t be available until around this time next year, anecdotally, I have been hearing from provincial and municipal institutions in Ontario that FOI request volumes have remained low in 2021 thus far. How long will this lull last? Currently, there’s no doubt that COVID-19 remains the top concern on many people’s minds, and it continues to dominate in the news as well. I predict we will see a return to normal FOI request volumes once COVID is no longer the main concern in the province of Ontario. And however much we might be enjoying the below normal request volumes, we are all hoping that our COVID worries disappear as soon as possible!

In fact, many are predicting a post-COVID boom where people rush to make up for lost time — booking trips that have been put off for over a year, spending money saved during the pandemic (for those fortunate enough to have maintained employment), moving into new homes and offices, and starting new businesses:

Mr. White now believes a roaring two-year rebound is beginning, with GDP growth estimated to be roughly 6 per cent in Canada and 7 per cent in the United States this year, followed by 4.5 per cent in both countries next year. Some of that is catching up on lost ground from the crisis. Meanwhile, hundreds of billions of dollars of extra deposits have built up on bank balance sheets, waiting for opportunities to be spent.

Consumers are itching to book holidays and dine out, companies are bringing new spending ideas to their boards, and the pipeline for potential mergers and acquisitions is bursting. “I mean, there’s just so much liquidity,” Mr. White says, adding: “I don’t know how you keep a lid on it, frankly.”

BMO CEO predicts economic boom as COVID-19 pandemic wanes“, James Bradshaw, Globe & Mail, June 25, 2021

The next provincial election, which is expected to be held on or before June 2, 2022, may also drive a significant increase in the number of general records requests at many institutions in the months leading up to election day.

Next Steps

Should we expect the number of FOI requests to reach new heights in the next year or two? And if that is on the horizon, what should institutions do now to prepare?

Hire Now?

One strategy would be to attempt to “hire ahead of the wave”. If your current FOI workload is already stretching your institution’s resources, it may make sense to expand the team now, before increased FOI volumes create increased demand for experienced FOI professionals.

The FOI Assist Software

This would also be a great time to start implementing solutions that make processing FOI requests easier, such as the FOI Assist software. The FOI Assist software is designed to help Ontario’s provincial and municipal government institutions of all sizes track and respond to Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests quickly, easily, and in full compliance with applicable legislation and guidance.

Although it’s easy to purchase and start using the FOI Assist software, institutions often like to arrange for a demonstration first. Some then purchase the software right away, while others may need to seek approval or make room in their next budget. If you are interested in the FOI Assist software, request a demonstration now to get the ball rolling.

Conclusion

There is now no question that the volume of FOI requests was way down in 2020, and in all likelihood, volumes have remained artificially low thus far in 2021, as COVID-19 has remained the primary concern of the public. But there’s no reason to believe that the number of requests will remain low in 2022 and beyond. There may even be a rebound as the pandemic clears up, causing the number of FOI requests to soar to new heights. Take advantage of the current calm to get organized, to hire as necessary, and to implement new procedures and advancements, such as the FOI Assist software. This lull won’t last forever!

Published by Justin Petrillo

I have created the FOI Assist™ software to help Ontario’s provincial and municipal government institutions of all sizes track and respond to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. For most of my career I have been a lawyer, advising clients on commercial, intellectual property and FOI/privacy issues. From 2013 to 2015, I managed the FOI program for the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan Am Games Organizing Committee while serving as Legal Counsel to the Games. Prior to becoming a lawyer, I obtained a computer science degree and worked as a software developer at several well-known technology companies.

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