Today’s newspapers are once again reading that bureaucrats, this time in CRA, possibly deleted text messages that may be “government records.” A spokesperson for Treasury Board President, Tony Clement, is quoted as saying: “If the (messages) were of business value and deleted, then the rules were broken. If the CRA can prove that they were transitory in nature I – if it was ‘meet you at the coffee shop in fifteen minutes’ – …but that is up to the CRA to prove”.

While I am an ardent proponent of government transparency, I am concerned that we have lost sight of what is and is not included in “the public’s right to know.”

At my former municipal government, we decided that text messages would not be logged, considering that such messages (like voice mails) were transitory. Where a text (or voice) message did contain something that could be classified as a corporate record, it was the responsibility of those involved to document the decision/record separately – e.g. a follow-up “as we discussed” memo or email – just as would be required if the exchange had taken place in a hallway conversation.

It seems that today’s prevailing political and media approach to text messages is to put the shoe on the other foot – assuming that they are corporate records (of business value) unless we can prove otherwise. This may simply result in bureaucrats reverting back to hallway or phone conversations on sensitive issues, since these are not (yet) being logged for posterity.

While this may seem cynical, I believe it is important to allow a certain amount of bureaucratic discretion and privacy. In the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry of a few years ago, much time was spent reviewing different versions of Council reports to determine who had made certain changes or deletions, as the reports went through various drafts. It was my, perhaps old fashioned, view that only the final report was a corporate record; all previous drafts could (and should) have been deleted. Similarly, an inquiry into a contract award for Toronto’s Union Station renovations sought disclosure of how individuals on an evaluation team had voted. Again, my view was that the record was the recommendation made by the team collectively. The discussion/individual votes leading up to that recommendation should remain private.

In general, the public is entitled to know what has been decided or recommended – but not “who said what” in the process of arriving at a decision. Pushing government transparency too far into the boardrooms is ultimately unhealthy for our democracy. Bureaucrats should be entitled and encouraged to have healthy debates and disagreements without fear that these will become public. It is the decisions or recommendations that arise out of such debates which are legitimately public records.

Much of this confusion relates back to technology. Text messages are now generally logged, so we assume a right of access and an expectation that they not be deleted unless we can “prove” that they are not “of business value.” Telephone and hallway conversations are generally not logged, so the same expectations do not apply. To be consistent, does this mean that all “conversations” should be recorded and logged, until we can prove that they were not of business value? If not, why are we separating out a specific form of conversation?

Roy Wiseman
Roy Wiseman is currently Executive Director and was a founding member of MISA/ASIM Canada. He is a Board Member and Past President of the Institute for Citizen Centred Service, Past President of MISA Ontario, former municipal Co-Chair of the Service Mapping Subcommittee and Project Director for the Municipal Reference Model (MRMv2) project.