Three Strategies to Streamline Ontario Municipal FOI Programs
By Shaun McIver*,
As a municipal leader, you may have noticed that your front-line Freedom of Information (FOI) staff are working harder than ever. This is no surprise, given that the aggregate volume and complexity of FOI requests have increased over the past several years for Ontario municipal entities.
According to annual statistical reports published by the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC), municipal entities experienced an aggregate year-over-year increase in reported FOI requests of 18% in 2021 and 8% in 2022, consecutively. Though the 2023 IPC statistical report is not expected to be released until this Spring, many Ontario municipal entities have cited a continued increase in FOI requests over the past year.
The natural reaction to addressing increased FOI request workloads is to hire additional full-time resources; however, this approach presents multiple challenges. Tabling costly full-time FOI staff during the budgeting process can be challenging to defend, particularly when competing with more visible projects for funding dollars. Despite budget availability, experienced FOI professionals are becoming increasingly difficult to recruit, fueled by a wave of FOI veterans entering retirement.
In this blog, we will explore three focused strategies municipal entities can undertake to streamline and simplify their FOI programs, without expending significant financial resources.
- Map Internal Workflow and Bottlenecks:
The foundation of an effective FOI program is to understand and visually map all stages of the request process, from submission to response and appeals management. By documenting the end-to-end FOI workflow and determining the average time spent at each stage, municipal entities can focus on creating solutions to address bottlenecks. For example, in a 2023 province-wide FOI insights survey conducted by Vayle, “waiting on other departments” was cited as the second most pressing challenge facing municipal entities, following “FOI team resources.” FOI managers should work collaboratively with slower internal responding departments to understand the root cause of delays and how they can be remediated.
- Utilize FOI Software to Automate Tasks and Reporting:
Implementing FOI workflow software has proven to be transformative for Ontario municipal entities of all sizes. The automation of routine tasks, including request intake, task assignment, response letter generation, and the creation of annual and statistical reports, has provided significant efficiencies for FOI programs. Moreover, FOI workflow automation software can be used to centralize collaboration, enhance communication, and improve response times, resulting in reduced risks and greater transparency. FOI software can also provide immutable logs, simplifying and expediting the appeals investigation and response process.
- Consider Fractional Resources During Peak Periods:
Municipalities should consider contracting fractional resources during peak periods to manage the cyclical nature of FOI request volumes. Rather than incurring costs associated with hiring additional staff with FOI expertise, fractional resources provide a flexible solution to address temporary surges in FOI requests. This approach ensures that municipal entities have the necessary resources to handle increased workloads without incurring long-term financial commitments associated with permanent hires.
Ontario municipal entities should anticipate a continued increase in the volume and complexity of FOI requests in the coming years and take proactive steps to streamline their FOI programs. By implementing a continuous improvement process supported by key performance indicators, FOI departments can pinpoint strategies that are working, as well as areas that require attention. Developing a fine-tuned FOI program involves participation from multiple departments and can take months to implement, underscoring the importance for municipal leaders to begin this journey at the earliest opportunity.
*Shaun McIver is the CEO of Vayle, AMO's FOI and privacy compliance solutions provider. For a complimentary assessment of your FOI program, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.