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A good access request

June 3, 2021 - Ron Kruzeniski, Information and Privacy Commissioner

You want some information from a government ministry, board, agency, Crown corporation, or from a city, town, village, rural municipality, university, school, library or health trustee. First, try the informal method, which is finding out who makes decisions regarding releasing information, maybe the director or a supervisor, and request by telephone the information you would like. If that is not successful, your next step is to go formal and prepare an Access to Information Request. A sample of the form can be found here.

I see many access requests that ask for everything. Asking for everything can result in hundreds or thousands of records. It will take longer to find all the records and as staff consider the number of records being requested, their inclination will be to charge a fee. If a public body has to retrieve 25 records it can happen fairly quickly. If you are asking for 4,000 records, you know that will take longer to find and reproduce them all.

So, my first piece of advice is that you think carefully about what exactly you want. Define your purpose and then say I need certain records to fulfill that purpose.

You can limit your request to a certain date range, e.g. for the month of May 2020 or for the year 2019. The narrower the date range, the less extensive the search and the time to retrieve and reproduce those documents.

If you can, specify the types of records you want, e.g. you want emails rather than all documents, or engineering reports rather than all reports.

You can also specify you want the records connected to certain employees, e.g. emails between Joe and Sally rather than emails sent and received by all employees.

In other words, by making your access request more specific, you increase the chances of staff knowing where to look and reducing the time to search, review and reproduce.

You can of course go as broad as you wish, but do not be surprised if you have to wait longer and you receive a high fee estimate.

And, remember not to frame your access to information request in the form of a question. The right of access is to copies of source documents that already exist at the time the request is made. There is no obligation under access and privacy legislation for a public body to create records to respond to your question.

I hope this might help you when seeking information or records and I hope public bodies appreciate your efforts to be specific and narrow your request. I hope those public bodies do their part and give you greater service.

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