Privacy Officer in a Difficult Spot
I encourage every public body to appoint a FOIP Coordinator. In larger organizations you might want to have a position of Chief Privacy Officer (CPO). The reasons for having a FOIP Coordinator or a CPO are that in these times organizations really need one person who is knowledgeable on access and privacy issues. He or she needs to know the legislation, when and where it applies, and the best practices in the organization’s sector or industry. He or she will also be responsible for supervising the processing of access requests and investigating privacy breaches.
Any citizen can file an access request and that includes the media. A journalist pursuing a story may request information to assist in writing that story.
When a journalist files an access request, my office will encourage the public body to work with the Applicant to narrow the scope of the request and clarify exactly what is being requested. Such efforts can reduce the time spent by the public body, the fees charged, if any, and the time lag between request and provision of the documents.
The FOIP Coordinator is in a difficult position when first talking to the journalist. His or her organization may have a policy that communications with the media go through the communication director. On the other hand, only by talking to the journalist will the possibility of narrowing or clarifying the request occur. If the FOIP Coordinator talks to the journalist, the fear is that he or she might get quoted in tomorrow’s story. So does the FOIP Coordinator not talk at all and give up an opportunity to clarify and speedily deal with the request?
This is a problem for the FOIP Coordinator, journalist and my office. Why my office? If matters don’t get resolved at the first stage, an Applicant (journalists) might appeal to my office for a review. This takes time and resources in my office. The end result is that it takes a lot longer to get the information.
My solution is that public bodies and the media reach an understanding that communications with the FOIP Coordinator will not be quoted in any story. In other words, there is no interview with the FOIP Coordinator. The communications with the FOIP Coordinator will be strictly to clarify and narrow the request. The understanding should be that the journalist will contact the communications director if he or she wants an interview.
As we work to create this understanding, FOIP Coordinators when contacted by a journalist should ask whether it is an interview or whether he or she will be quoted in any future stories. If the journalist says yes, the FOIP Coordinator should refer the journalist to the communications director. Similarly a journalist calling about an access request should begin by indicating this is not an interview and if an interview is sought the journalist will contact the communications director.
My goal is a well-functioning access to information system in the province where access requests are answered quickly and without confusion as to roles.