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BC government chided for failing to archive huge backlog of documents

With apologies to Cool Hand Luke, what we've got here is a failure to archive.

That is the conclusion of a July 22 report by B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who wrote that 33,000 boxes of government documents are languishing in storage, waiting to be archived.

Denham said records, whatever medium in which they are created, "perform a basic function in society -- to document its transactions, events, stories and decisions" and are crucial to a well-functioning government if they are properly created, stored and classified.

"However, records do not need to be retained by government forever and at the end of their operational life they are either destroyed or retained in the BC Archives consistent with legislative requirements," Denham wrote.

The 33,000-box backlog is the result of a "standstill within government" over who is responsible for paying to archive government records that stems from the 2001-2002 core review.

During premier Gordon Campbell's cost-cutting first term, BC Archives became part of the Royal B.C. Museum Crown corporation and a fee of $454 to deal with each box of records was set.

Ministries are now choosing not to archive records, but instead spend $6.72 per year, per box to warehouse them.

"In the absence of additional funding to archive their records, it is not surprising that ministries have chosen to warehouse their records rather than pay $454 to deposit them in the BC Archives," she wrote.

Saskatchewan is the only other jurisdiction that charges government agencies such a fee, albeit only $15 a box to transfer records to the archives.

Denham's report said B.C.'s 62 cents per capita spending on the BC Archives is less than all provinces, except New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Alberta spends 83 cents per capita, while Ontario is $1.39.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of records now produced are digital and are left on government servers or storage systems.

"The current policy for transferring electronic records to the BC Archives is for ministries to print their records and then transfer them in paper form to the Archives, which would then transfer the paper records to microfilm for long term access and preservation," said the report. "This method is impractical and expensive -- ministries have not been utilizing this cumbersome process."

Denham wrote that, ultimately, B.C. has no strategy for the life-cycle management of either paper or electronic records.

"The coincidence of this simultaneous failure of managing both paper and electronic records puts us at a critical point where the status quo cannot continue without significant financial and historical consequences," said the report.

"However, this critical juncture also presents an opportunity to re-evaluate the organization and funding of the BC Archives and to benefit from the progress and innovation that has occurred around the world."

Andrew Wilkinson, minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens' Services, said in a prepared statement that the government is working with the Royal B.C. Museum to "find solutions for a portion of the government records that need to be archived. This will help address the challenges identified in the report." No details were given.

"While we currently meet our legal obligations for storage, we continue to explore new approaches to policies and tools to ensure that our management of records is modern, efficient and responsive," said the statement. 

Denham pointed to the City of Vancouver archives as an example of a government efficiently dealing with digital records. After assuming the records from the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics organizing committee, Vancouver collaborated with Artefactual on a three-year, $1-million project to develop an open source digital archiving system for the records, which were almost entirely "born digital."

Denham did not, however, mention that many of the most important records in the VANOC archive -- such as board minutes, correspondence and financials -- cannot be accessed by the public until 2025 because of the contract signed by city manager and VANOC director Penny Ballem, VANOC and the Canadian Olympic Committee.

In her report, Denham recommended repatriating the BC Archives into government with proper funding to deal with the backlog, create or procure an electronic archiving system and replace the Document Disposal Act of 1936 with a modern law.

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin, a regular contributor to The Tyee, has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since he began as a journalist in 1990. Find his Tyee articles here.

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