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Government transparency suffers under 'transitory' record keeping

A year after Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Dunham bashed the provincial government for their lax approach to official record keeping, they have only improved marginally, reveals an analysis by The Canadian Press.

The analysis shows that one in every five freedom of information requests comes back empty -- and while that's an improvement from a year ago when it was one in four, it indicates that government is still not keeping robust records.

One explanation could be that government officials have become adept at treating official information as 'transitory,' says Vincent Gogolek of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, a group that advocates open government.

The term comes with a strict definition from the Office of the Chief Information Officer, the central office for information management in government, and can only be applied to records that are "of temporary usefulness" or "needed only for a limited period of time in order to complete a routine action or prepare an ongoing record."

In an email correspondence between government officials, made public in September 2013, a senior official instructs other officials to "delete all drafts of the materials and e-mail correspondence should be treated as transitory" while discussing government business.

Gogolek calls this practice a rather arbitrary interpretation of what constitutes a transitory records.

"It seems like these people are sticking 'transitory' on pretty much whatever they want," says Gogolek.

When a record is defined as transitory it means government can delete it shortly after creation with no consequence -- in other words and effective way to hide information from the public, says Gogolek.

"We're losing official records because people are saying, 'oh it's transitory so let's get rid of it,'" he says.

The commissioner writes in her report that any record of action or decision-making should not be treated as transitory.

One of her main concerns is the apparent culture of 'oral government' where business is undertaken verbally and in a records-free way.

Nothing in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act requires such activities to be documented which could offer a second explanation as to why so many freedom-of-information requests turn up empty.

The commissioner recommended that government should create a duty to record because without it "government can effectively avoid disclosure and public scrutiny as to the basis and reasons for its actions," as she wrote in her report.

Gogolek agrees. If the public can't look government over the shoulder when decisions are made or discussed we lose our ability to keep them accountable: "These are decisions that affect peoples' lives or cost millions or billions of dollars -- how can we know if the government did a good job on it?" he says, adding that he believes it undermines our democracy.

Minister of Citizen's Services Andrew Wilkinson, whose department oversees the freedom of information program in B.C., suggests the large number of non-responsive requests can in part be explained by the centralization of the system in 2009.

Within the centralized system applicants are able to make requests of the same files to multiple ministries "regardless of the fact there may be only a slim chance a particular ministry may hold records," he wrote in an email to The Tyee.

The minister further states that rules around document management are clear and that government officials are required to abide by these rules.

Kristian Secher is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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