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 (