Having worked the government/ oversight side of the street for several years, I have developed great sympathy for the PBR (the Poor Bloody Requester). It takes very little on the part of the receiving department (e.g. Correctional Service of Canada, Treasury Board, DFAIT, the Commission of Official Languages) to frustrate the PBR’s hopes of actually acquiring some useful information in a timely fashion.
Here are two prime example of the type of shenanigans that can take place:
1. “Oh, that’s what you meant! Sorry”
Every analyst worth their salt knows that the first duty on receipt of an information request is to clarify it. This has two meanings: to make the meaning clear and to limit the scope of the request so that the department.
My experience is that such clarification most often occurs when the department is worried about the workload involved in having to search for and review too many records ( and about getting static from units that supply records ). Far less often is clarification used to help the PBR ensure that they are asking for what they want, in a timely, low-cost fashion. The result: departments search for far more records than the PBR really needs and take an inordinately long time doing so, often with considerable search and review fees.
My advice to Requesters is to be very careful to describe the records that you do, or do not, want. If you are interested in a report, or some other ultimate document produced on a subject be sure not to ask for other records (memo’s, emails, notes etc) that will not assist in understanding – unless yo think that certain other documents will help. Also, be sure to limit the time frame of the records you are seeking to the period during which useful records are likely to have been produced – no longer than is absolutely necessary! Most important, make it clear on your request that you wish to be consulted in order to discuss how you could modify your request to ensure you get what you want. When you are consulted, look upon the analyst as your agent, their job is to help you to get what you need. They are familiar with the type of records that the department possesses and with the relevance of these. They can anticipate how long it will take to respond and what kind of exemptions and exceptions you are likely to encounter. Have the conversation. Keep discussing until you feel comfortable with the what and when of your request.
2. Tag, you’re it.
In the review process there can arise little exchanges of information where the department has asked you for something, or where you have undertaken to do something, or where you think the department is going to do something. By not being aware of these, the PBR can find themselves waiting around for something to happen when, in fact, the department has put the matter “on hold” waiting for a move from the PBR. In my view the department has an obligation to make it clear what is expected next from whom and, where it will be helpful, to ensure the PBR is aware of when the process as been suspended. If you have any doubt about whether you are expected to do something make sure to ask. You should do so any time you speak to the analyst – “you, who has to do what next, Bob?” failure to notice inertia jet adds to your frustration and costs big hours, days and months.
I’ll get back to you from time to time with other sources of frustration. In the meantime, drop me a line if you have other pet peeves or if you have a question/comment.
 In ATIP-speak these are known as Government Institutions but I have chosen refer to all types of organizations and agencies as departments. Just a whim.