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A report into records mismanagement by the B.C. government has made several sweeping recommendations in advance of legislation that will come into effect next year.

In October, B.C. privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham published a report finding that the provincial government inappropriately deleted emails. The government then appointed former B.C. privacy commissioner David Loukidelis to produce a follow-up report providing detailed recommendations on how it should manage records and handle freedom of information requests. The report was on December 16th.

Loukidelis called for reforms within the Ministry’s Information Access Operations (IAO), which is a central body within the B.C. government that processes freedom of information requests to its ministries. This body took over the processing of requests when the government shifted to a centralized model in 2009.

In particular, the IAO should be on the lookout for situations where the government cannot meet the standard expected of it, the report suggested.

“IAO should continue to watch for cases where it has reason to believe records should exist, yet none are produced to it. In such instances, IAO should rapidly escalate the matter to obtain appropriate direction,” Loukidelis said. He added that assistance should then come from the deputy minister or an immediate delegate.

Ministries should each appoint a permanent public servant to work with the IAO on requests, to prevent political staff from being in charge of record searches, the report added.

“This will have resource implications, but trust and confidence warrant this change, which should be maintained over at least the medium term,” said Loukidelis.

This recommendation would have helped to avoid the deletion of emails within the Ministry of Transportation by a ministerial official, who the B.C. privacy commissioner has since reported to the RCMP. Loukidelis added the government should introduce legislation making it an offence to destroy emails to evade records requests.

The B.C. Government should clarify access requests to ensure that it isn’t interpreting them too narrowly; it should also educate employees on how to conduct searches in response to requests, and train them in records management, according to the report.

Better management in the Premier’s Office

The Executive Branch of the Premier’s Office should tighten up its access to information processes (found in the report to have relied mainly on verbal communication and handwritten notes), the report suggested.

It also noted that since the Commissioner’s initial report was published in October, Premier Christy Clark has revamped the process for processing access requests made to her office. Now, a designated public service employee in the Deputy Minister’s office handles freedom of information requests. Once retrieved, they are forwarded to the IAO for processing.

Clark had responded a day after the original Commissioner’s report was published. “I’ve told everyone at the political level, ministers, political staff, even if it’s clearly a transitory document that you are required by law to delete – I want you to keep it,” she said on October 23 of this year. A letter sent to her staff said that this would help to keep documents available until Loukidelis had finished his work and could provide further guidance.

Significantly, NDP MLA David Eby issued a freedom of information request for all emails sent by Clark between October 19-22, and from October 26-29. Only one document appeared, leading him to wonder whether the premier is using email at all in the wake of the report.

Loukidelis suggested the IAO be given equal access to the Premier’s Office as to the ministries. “Regarding searches for records within the Premier’s office, the above recommendations about IAO authority and access to records in a minister’s office should be implemented in relation to the Premier’s office,” he said.

The report also made several recommendations to improve records management within the government. It should also extend the retention times for its Exchange deleted items email folders to 31 days from 14 days, the report said, to ensure that emails are caught by monthly backups. This would give deleted items a 13-month retention period overall, because that is the minimum retention period for monthly backups.

‘Triple-deletion’ – which effectively removes emails completely from deleted items folders and renders them unrecoverable under any circumstance – should also be prohibited by policy, Loukidelis warned.

The government must also clarify its policy on what constitutes a transitory record, the reports added. The premier’s Deputy Chief of Staff had deleted almost everything because she considered it to be transitory rather than retainable.

The Loukidelis report comes ahead of the Information Management Act. This legislation will authorize the government’s chief records officer to provide clear guidance on what records should be retained and disposed of.