Case of the disappearing data – Canadian Government Executive

NEWS

SEARCH

Digital Governance with Jeffrey RoyICT
May 7, 2012

Case of the disappearing data

Students of public administration struggle with an important contradiction of Westminster governance. On the one hand, textbooks speak of openness and the fish bowl of working in government, with the opposition and the media (and now bloggers!) looking to expose every misstep they can find. On the other hand, the DNA of Cabinet and the executive branch is secrecy: containing information and controlling the message as much as possible. Alas, transparent when necessary – otherwise not necessarily transparent.

Having enjoyed a wonderfully dry and sunny summer – the only blemish being burning forests and the resulting destruction – and with the Olympics on the horizon, politics in B.C. seems to have taken a back seat in recent months. Or perhaps with a rich and colourful history of shenanigans, folks in B.C. just take it all in stride, but the province is delivering an important case study in secrecy and information management in the digital age.

The pertinent question of recent months has been – what happened to the emails? A court case currently before the B.C. Supreme Court involving allegedly corrupt former political aides and the province’s largest ever privatization (the $1 billion sale of BC Rail to CN) was stunned to learn in July that emails between the Premier’s Office and various Cabinet Ministers (among others) from 2001 to 2005 had vanished, or rather been vanished as the case may be (a summer recess provided the government a reprieve to come up with a better explanation than the initial admission and subsequent stonewalling).

The seriousness of the issue stems from the fact that managers may have been told to discard the emails – contrary to government’s own policy, during the most recent provincial campaign this past spring, at a time when it was well known that such information had been requested by various parties before the Courts. EDS Advanced Solutions, the company responsible for destroying the files (on government orders) has reportedly salvaged some but not all of the information being requested. The entire case may hinge on what is found.

Aside from scrutinizing the dealings that underpinned a major financial deal that involved government officials, lobbyists and the private sector, this episode promises wider ramifications in B.C. and indeed across the country. B.C.’s privacy commissioner has taken an interest, and hopes to draw broader attention to such issues; an all-party legislative committee will review the province’s information management practises and legislation later this fall.

One crucial matter should be addressed – namely who should be the proper custodian of electronic information and public information holdings more generally? Should such decisions be left to those in power and thus in control of the executive arm of government or is a more neutral body required?

At present we have information and privacy commissioners that provide a challenge function, but with oversight limited to swaying public opinion and court intervention (the latter realm both hugely expensive and inherently reactionary and conflictual). In my own book on e-government, I argued for a CIO-type function for the public sector as a whole, thereby transcending traditional boundaries between executive and legislative branches.

If information is truly the lifeblood of democratic accountability, it should not be left to those in power to determine how best to store (or destroy) it. A new and more independent body, with input and oversight from both elected officials and the public at large, should be empowered to provide guidance and oversight on key issues such as document storage and public disclosure.

Such a body could also foster a public dialogue on the new appropriate levels of openness and disclosure, and how to do so in a more ongoing and proactive manner as opposed to political staffers and central agencies operating under a siege mentality shaped by partisan interests.

Secrecy breeds suspicion, of course, and a major challenge of our time is how to rescue Westminster governance from itself – by creating a virtuous (as opposed to the presently vicious) cycle between transparency and trust in the public sector.    

In its most narrow sense, the BC Rail case is indicative of the perils of imposing openness on a system designed – in the 19th century, we should remind ourselves – to resist. The time for institutional redesign is now long overdue.   

Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (roy@dal.ca).

About this author

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy is Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. He is a widely published observer and critic of the impacts of digital technologies on government and democracy. He has worked with the United Nations, the OECD, multinational corporations, and all levels of government in Canada. He has produced more than eighty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and his most recent book was published in 2013 by Springer: From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. Among other bodies, his research has been funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He may be reached at: roy@dal.ca

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Digital Governance with Jeffrey Roy
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
The arrival of President Trump in the White House marks a...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
In January, the BBC and BuzzFeed jointly released an exposé on...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
That the new Liberal Government has embraced ‘open government’ is hardly...
 
In 2011, the World Economic Forum presented its vision of a...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
With a seemingly ubiquitous Internet and mobile devices at every turn,...
 
At the end of November, the Council of Europe hosted the...
 
For the casual observer, openness and transparency are terms that can...
 
At stake is the evolving apparatus enjoining Canadians with the information...
 
Faced with the Newtown tragedy, President Obama has sought to make...
 
The now, seemingly distant 2012 holiday season proved to be fertile...
 
In 2008, President Obama refashioned American politics for a more digital...
 
As governments seek transformational change to shift from austerity to agility,...
 
In recent months, Apple and Samsung have been clobbering one another...
 
During the month of October tens of millions of viewers will...
 
For Egyptians and Mexicans, this past summer showcased the imperfections of...
 
With the federal public service in a state of budgetary retrenchment,...
 
Do we read books anymore? Travel on airplanes or trains these...
 
In February, President Obama and Prime Minister Harper announced the formation...
 
Is there reason to hope? Once again, the federal government has...
 
Au moment où s’amorce la présidence d’Obama, les spéculations vont bon...
 
As the Obama Presidency begins, there is much speculation as to...
 
A strange paradox has emerged in the quest for Gov 2.0....
 
One of the peculiarities of the 21st century is the correlation...
 
When President Barack Obama campaigns during the coming months for re-election,...
 
As the iCloud takes hold – along with numerous other private,...
 
A new year is a good time to reflect on the...
 
If only it were so. While Shared Services Canada promises simplicity...
 
The securing of a much-coveted majority by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives surely...
 
The federal election campaign has not been particularly kind to cities...
 
Despite the occasional ministerial tweet and public banter about the federal...
 
More than a decade ago, some enterprising folks at Industry Canada...
 
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are one of Canada’s most critical...
 
Toronto’s new mayor, Rob Ford, has pledged to cut city council...
 
As BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion negotiates with many governments around the...
 
To start with a timeless question: what do woman want? Presumably,...
 
One important consequence of climate change is rising ocean levels. The...
 
Shortly after the Quebec referendum of October 1995 that brought the...
 
As this column goes to print (literally or online as the...
 
Full disclosure – the Conservative government has serious problems with the...
 
Students of public administration struggle with an important contradiction of Westminster...
 
L’opération de promotion à laquelle l’Alberta s’est récemment livrée souligne les...
 
Alberta’s recent branding exercise underscores the tensions and risks inherent in...
 
La plupart des organismes se voient affecter des « directeurs des...
 
With Parliament once again open and a new federal budget in...
 
Two important global events are garnering much attention: the upcoming Winter...
 
The recent scandals plaguing Ontario’s e-health agency carry important lessons for...
 
The Obama administration is appointing “Directors of New Media” for most...
 
Y a-t-il de l’espoir? Une fois de plus, le gouvernement fédéral...
 
Dans le numéro de janvier, Ruth Hubbard et David Zussman nous...
 
In the January issue, Ruth Hubbard and David Zussman discussed the...
 
The past decade has given rise to tremendous experimentation in public...
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...

Member Login

Forgot Password?

Join Us

Password Reset
Please enter your e-mail address. You will receive a new password via e-mail.