Editorial: Keeping records part of integrity

How will history judge the current B.C. Liberal government? Well, future historians might find the judging difficult, given that so much of history consists of preserved records. The Christy Clark government has been notably deficient in that arena.

The premier has taken a step in the right direction by ordering all political staff and ministers to save emails, but that move comes more as the result of a flogging from the information and privacy commissioner and less from a desire to ensure the government’s business is properly recorded and securely preserved.

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Clark could prove the sincerity of her concern for preserving information and making it accessible. She could ensure the new legislation regarding digital records makes it more difficult for officials to delete information, rather than providing them wide loopholes under the classification of “transitory.”

She could demand that proper records be kept not only of what is done, but why it was done and who contributed to the decisions.

Such meticulous record-keeping would have been helpful in explaining the 2012 firings of several Health Ministry employees. One of the biggest human-resources blunders in the history of the Canadian public service has yet to be explained.

The most elementary of HR principles is creating a paper trail — or a digital trail these days — to ensure fair and proper procedures are followed.

Yet if such a trail was created in the Health Ministry scandal, it hasn’t been found. When all the fingerprints have been wiped from the scene, it’s natural to assume something shady is afoot.

If proper records had been kept, B.C. taxpayers would have been spared the expense and angst of multiple investigations, one of which is still being conducted by ombudsperson Jay Chalke. It’s hard to predict what Chalke will turn up — the two previous reviews did little to clear the air.

But if keeping good records and accepting accountability had been the trademark of the current administration, perhaps the firings might not have happened. Whimsical and arbitrary actions are less likely to occur when perpetrators know their actions will be recorded and they will be held accountable.

Clark’s cease-and-desist order on deleting emails is a stopgap. The next step is to decide how those emails should be handled. Not every email or note is pertinent; much is trivial. Keeping all the records would create a huge mound of data that would be difficult to sort through.

But it should not be left to the ministers or their aides to decide. In archiving and library theory, there are ways to determine what should be kept and what should be discarded. Let the professionals do it and let the records be kept where they are accessible, but in a secure format that cannot be tampered with for political purposes.

When all records were paper, it was more difficult to destroy them. On the other hand, digital records are much easier to access, if they are archived properly. Proven technology and sound procedures are part of that process.

But more important is a shift in attitude away from secrecy and toward openness.

Record-keeping is not just about preserving history for future generations, but about keeping the current generation informed on what their government is doing.

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