An Opportunity to Lead: Duty to Document

Access to information relies on good recordkeeping and information management practices. When records are not created or appropriately preserved to document decisions, rights under the Access to Information Act are denied. This, in turn, prevents government accountability and transparency.

It used to be that keeping records was as simple as storing notes in a filing cabinet. But in today’s world, none of us is immune to the new world order of information, not even governments. Today, the sheer speed and volume of information being created presents a constant challenge. Technology both aids and hinders our ability to preserve information. And in the ever-accelerating information landscape, the responsibility for creating and preserving government records has become a real issue. In 2013, for example, I released a special report on the use of instant messaging by government employees, in which I concluded that the use of PIN to PIN Blackberry messaging constitutes a real threat to access to information rights.

Recently, we’ve seen some high-profile examples of failure in the duty to document, whether it be the so-called “triple delete” scandal in British Columbia or the criminal charges related to gas-plants in Ontario. With ever greater frequency, I’m asked to investigate complaints about requests for records that should exist, but for some reason, do not.

Earlier this year, my provincial and territorial counterparts across Canada collaborated on a joint resolution to address precisely this issue. As a collective, we called on our respective governments to create a legislated duty to document deliberations, actions and decisions, with enforcement provisions to ensure that Canadians’ right of access to public records remains meaningful and effective. I also made specific recommendations on this issue in my report on modernizing the Act.

A legislated duty to document, with sanctions for non-compliance, protects access to information rights by:

  • Creating official records;
  • Facilitating better governance;
  • Increasing accountability; and
  • Ensuring a historical legacy of government decisions.

For Canada, this challenge presents a real opportunity – an opportunity to lead by example. If the government wants to arrive at open and accountable government, then this is the way forward.

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