Q-and-a on FOI requests with freedom of information expert Ken Rubin

Jan. 16, 2017

Staff reporter

Access and privacy law expert Ken Rubin stands at the gate next to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada. (Courtesy Debbie Rubin)

Ken Rubin, an Ottawa-based expert on Canada’s access and privacy laws, has spent 50 years filing requests for government information about everything from airline safety issues to food industry efforts to influence revisions to the Canada Food Guide. His work has resulted in hundreds of reports and news stories about what goes on behind the scenes in government departments and agencies.

Rubin, a senior fellow at Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression and a columnist for The Hill Times, discussed his experiences and best practices for using freedom of information legislation at Battling Secrecy, a Nov. 27 panel organized by the Centre for Free Expression. Afterwards the man who bills himself as “Canada’s information warrior” spoke with Ryerson Journalism Research Centre reporter Amanda Pope about what journalists starting out in the industry should know about freedom of information requests.

Amanda Pope: Do journalists in general use FOI requests enough?

Ken Rubin: Most journalists don’t use FOI. It requires a little bit more work than some of them are used to or they don’t have that research background. But there is always a good, healthy minority of journalists who do. The main reason is that you don’t get an instant answer. There are barriers like fees, deadlines and most editors do not want to pay fees for information. You also need to have a consistent strategy, or beat, that make you want to use [FOIs] again and again. Some people are involved in the in-depth journalism where they would really need it.

AP: What advice would you have for a young journalist in navigating an FOI request for the first time?

KR: Don’t expect the first time to be the best time. You just have to learn from experience or from others. Journalists need to do this simple thing. If it is a federal application, you have to pay your $5 fee, be as specific as possible, identify your department and subject matter such as dates. Be prepared to dialogue, if that’s possible, with the person who is assigned your file and always raise questions. Start off this process by realizing that it’s long and requires your persistency. I would suggest creating yourself a log so you know when you submitted what, what response you got and create a template so you don’t have to fill in the same form all of the time.

AP: What are the most common mistakes journalists young and old make when filing and FOI?

KR: At times it may be limiting it to certain dates, certain types of records or brief notes. But I think the most common mistake is not knowing which department to [file] it to. Journalists also need to learn how to be polite because a lot are impatient when someone does not respond quickly. You have to realize that some of these departments are not very receptive to sharing the information. Before you file the request, you need to have a focus for what you are writing.

AP: If you were a student, what FOI request would you file with your university?

KR: If you don’t know the pressing issues at your school, then read the student newspaper. Look at something that is of interest to you and then ask questions like, “I want the board of governors meeting minutes, I want exchanges between the dean of arts and science and dean of graduate studies.” I would also start with something as simple as requesting to see your student records and your professors’ evaluations. Journalists are supposed to be curious and nosey, and so you have to start with asking questions.

AP: What should a student do if we get an answer back saying the information is available but we’d have to pay an astronomical cost?

KR: You should drill down into your application and find what information you really need and how much you think it’s worth. Ask yourself how you can narrow down your application without losing your dignity and rights to information. There is no harm in asking for previously released information because you might find some of the information you wanted has already been released. Also take things on a diskette instead of a hard copy because it will be $10 instead of 20 cents per page.

AP: What is the single most important thing to remember when filing an FOI request?

KR: Be persistent, patient and don’t ever take no for an answer– even if they have a thousand ways to say no. Your job to see what is really going on behind the scenes not just listening to what you’re told but you’re going to have to work hard at doing that. The internet is great for research but if you only rely on that you’ll never create a real news story.

This interview has been edited for length.