When Kim Haakstad, Premier Christy Clark’s former deputy chief of staff, sent out an email about the plan to win over ethnic voters, she sent it from her personal email account, not from a government one. And she sent it to the private accounts of the other staffers.
When Clark’s chief of staff, Ken Boessenkool, resigned last September over an incident in a bar, the only piece of paper that turned up through a freedom-of-information request was Boessenkool’s resignation letter. No other documents were found.
They are two examples of what Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said this week is an effort by the government to avoid freedom-of-information laws and public scrutiny. She issued a report noting that 45 per cent of all requests to the premier’s office for information last year came up empty. The same was true of 25 per cent of requests across all of government. No written records were found.
In some cases, that was because the person requesting the information sent it to the wrong department.
However, in other cases, the government reported that all decisions were made in person or on the phone.
The B.C. Liberals are using what Denham called “oral government.”
“The lack of documentation undermines the ability of citizens, journalists and the public to understand the basis for government’s actions on any particular matter.”
Denham wants to see a law requiring the government to keep written records of important matters. It’s a good idea, although drafting such a law would probably be a nightmare of definitions and exceptions.
The government already wants to shuffle that proposal off to a committee that doesn’t meet again until 2016. One deputy minister noted that no other Canadian province has such a legal requirement.
Freedom-of-information requests are a burden for government. The Open Government Ministry says FOI requests to Clark’s office have increased 197 per cent in three years. The temptation to avoid as many as possible must be strong.
But FOI laws were created to make sure government is conducted in the open, and allow voters to see the facts and arguments their officials use to make decisions. The laws already include exceptions for things like cabinet confidentiality and specify what kinds of information must be blacked out when documents are released.
Using a private email account to conduct government business appears to be a deliberate attempt to avoid the reach of the FOI laws. If so, it is in vain, because Denham says all government communications come under her purview, even if they don’t use government computers and email accounts.
The law Denham suggests might work, but with or without such a law, Denham, along with reporters, interest groups and citizens must keep up the pressure on government by reporting on it and by filing FOI requests.
The government has to realize that if the public sees request after request coming up empty, voters will draw the natural political conclusion: The B.C. Liberals aren’t writing things down because they have something to hide.