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Almost everyone working for an organization has an overflowing email inbox. Some employers have standards on keeping the size down, while others don’t care.

But when the federal government issues an advisory to public servants to delete documents with no “business value” it can spark a hornet’s nest of controversy.

That’s what happened when the Toronto Star today revealed that several departments have told staff to delete what are considered unnecessary email to meet a new two gigabyte limit on inboxes announced recently by Treasury Board President Tony Clement.

The NDP immediately worried that “embedded political officers” in departments could use the instructions to justify the erasure of sensitive documents. Similarly, the head of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada,  which represents professionals and scientists. was quoted in the story that given the Harper government’s “fondness for secrecy,” the instructions are “a red flag.”

This brings to mind the discovery last year of the daily erasure of email by the chief of staff to Ontario’s energy minister, who apparently liked an empty inbox at the end of the day. Then provincial privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian was openly skeptical that was the real reason.

The Star said one department, Environment Canada, said staff had to keep all information of “business value” — but so-called “transitory” documents which could included repetitive copies of reports or reference material — could be killed.

Is the Star story and the email policy an uproar over nothing?

On the one hand, governments — like any organization — want to save as much disk storage space as they can. On the other hand there are certain legal obligations on the preservation of documents. Sometimes that’s clearly spelled out — although, as Cavoukian found in Ontario, if political staff aren’t obliged to take a document retention training program rules are useless.

One thing clear from the Ontario fiasco is that employees shouldn’t take for granted that IT departments back up all email, leaving staff free to delete what they want.

A spokesman for the federal information commissioner told the Star that the government is obliged to create a system to preserve “valuable information.”

If it isn’t clear, the Harper government’s good intention to save on storage could come back to bite them.

Perhaps the rule for bureaucrats should be when in doubt, keep it.

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