The AG and the institutional problem


While almost all of the attention last week was paid to the two chapters in the Auditor General’s report relating to veterans’ mental health needs and the lack of accountability in the Nutrition North program, the section on Library and Archives is something that more attention needs to be paid to.

To recap, Library and Archives has some 90,000 boxes of records that are waiting to be processed.  Some 24,000 of these are from National Defence, and date all the way back to the 1890s.  On top of that, the department, which has been under a great deal of fiscal pressure by government cuts, scrapped a digital storage system that the had built and tested to the tune of some $15 million, and nary an explanation could be found for why they did so – something of a bitter irony that the department charged with protecting the government’s written records couldn’t be bothered to generate or preserve their own.

The problem with this backlog is that it’s a reflection of the way in which record keeping is an institutional problem within the federal government.  It’s also one of those things that is never anyone’s problem until it becomes Library and Archives’ problem, and when they need resources to do their job, the government turns around and says “Not my problem.  That’s your budget – deal with it.”

In my previous life, before I was a Hill reporter, I was working in Health Canada as a contractor doing records management.  They had a backlog of hundreds of boxes that had been literally mouldering in basements around Ottawa that they finally figured that they had to do something with them, and Library and Archives told them to sort them out first, which became my job.  But sorting through those hundreds of boxes, it became quite obvious that there wasn’t a culture of responsibility when it came to records within the department.  In fact, Health Canada had received failing grades on their ability to manage their own documents.

One of the biggest problems is the culture where nobody wants to take responsibility for the records they generate.  Usually it was handed off to administrative assistants, but when they rotated out on what was pretty much an annual basis and their replacements weren’t trained in the tasks – usually too busy doing the rest of the day-to-day management of the group – files never got looked after.  When someone retired, their desk was packed into boxes, unsorted, and thrown in one of those basements, where nobody bothered to see what was in there until it became my job to sort through them.  These were the days before the department adopted document management software so that new records would be automatically captured as they were generated, but as we also saw from the AG’s report, LAC has yet to come up with a plan to adequately deal with the large volume of electronic records that are headed their way.

It’s also not to say that this kind of neglect has been done with any particular sense of malice.  Managers have limited resources to allocate, and records management has fallen to the bottom of the list of priorities time after time.  It’s also something that has had a particularly detrimental effect on the Access to Information system.  People like to complain about the “culture of secrecy” within the bureaucracy, and while some of these examples are true – managers running meetings without taking notes, for example, or running conversations over BlackBerry Messenger, which most departments don’t capture as part of their electronic record keeping regime.  That kind of thing does happen, and needs to be called out when it happens.  But the unintended consequence of not actually managing one’s records because of neglect means that you don’t know if you have records, or if you do, where they might be located.  The culture of a lack of responsibility for records compounds the accusations of the culture of secrecy.

So what does this lack of a culture of responsibility get you when it is magnified across the whole of the federal government?  It gets you a backlog of 90,000 boxes.  It gets you a department that is unable to cope with the volume of paper that they are charged with handling, and it gets you an unhappy Auditor General’s report.  Add to this the demands that LAC has faced when it comes to client services, and again their ability to process these records becomes a matter of trying to juggle their priorities.  This has only been made worse by cuts, a government-wide decision to focus on digitizing those records they deem to be of higher value, and the appointment of a head of the agency that apparently had little regard for the institution and its needs.

LAC responded to the AG that they’re putting together a task force to deal with that backlog by the end of next year.  It’s an ambitious goal, and I would suggest that it’s a pretty unrealistic one unless they’re willing to devote a great deal of time and personnel that they may not have toward it, and I speak from personal experience.  That many boxes, with no idea what is in those boxes, and with no idea as to the condition of the documents therein, will take a lot of time to process, and if there is the decision to digitize them as they go, that could take even longer.  This is something that would likely be a consideration with those boxes that have to do with Residential School documents, which has been an ongoing issue with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

There is a growing problem with the documentary history of our governing institutions that the current government seems to be blind to, whether wilfully or otherwise.  It’s an issue that deserves far greater attention because it affects us not only today, but future generations and governments yet to come.  We had best pay more heed to the AG’s concerns, whether we consider this to be an exciting issue or not.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

Stop referring to MPs as employees
Private Members’ Bills don’t mean much for debate
The ethics of crowd-sourcing your re-election

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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