Government record management systems need independent oversight

I am as surprised as anyone that email retention and deletion by government staff is again making news.  These matters have been thoroughly canvassed in numerous reports by my office, by government and in government’s own retention schedules and policies. They also emphasize the need for independent oversight of record management including the duty to document. 

To its credit, when recent incidents were drawn to government’s attention, it acted quickly to restore deleted emails in employee’s accounts so that they could be searched in response to an access to information request. 

Still, by now it should be well known to public servants what records must be retained and what records can be properly deleted.  One is left to ask why this happened at all and, in particular, what training ministry staff have undergone to ensure they understand their responsibilities. 

With that question in mind my office is now discussing with government officials whether the current training regime is up to scratch and whether actual practices are being carried out in accordance with training.

These events also focus a spotlight on the need to reform our access to information legislation. Meaningful access to information is not possible without proper systems for record creation, retention and destruction.  If government doesn’t document its decisions or records are created but improperly destroyed, the right to access is lost.   

What might surprise many is that despite the importance of robust record management systems to freedom of information, my office has very little direct oversight of these matters. I have no authority to penalize individuals who improperly destroy records. When the duty to create records becomes law, I will have no direct authority to hold government to account for compliance. That job is left to the Chief Records Officer – whose authority is not independent from government. 

If twenty years of access to information rights in BC and numerous recommendations from my office have taught us anything, it’s that accountability and transparency require independent oversight.

Government is now reviewing FIPPA with a view to improving it. Confidence in the access to information system will be enhanced if the public knows that those matters which go to its very core are the subject of independent oversight. 

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