Political Accountability in Discussions and Decision-Making in our Digital World

The G&M article Stop government staff use of instant messaging, says information watchdog (Bronskill: Nov 28 2013) reports on the Information Commissioner’s recommendations to parliament to ban instant messaging because of the significant difficuluties in storing and recovering them.

Check out the post as well as Commissioner Legault’s full report  Instant messaging putting access  to information at risk .

Given our state of technology, this is a techbit no-brainer that should rank right up there along with the banning of the use of outside-of-government email accounts (Hello Christy Clark – and the Ethnogate scandal (and  we should be hearing more about this in a bit) – as an example.

Those email trails can indeed be pesky varmits – if they ever manage to hit the light of day – even though FOI requests initially often indicate nothing on file – (Hello PM Stephen Harper).

I’ve always been intrigued (although I’ve never inquired) with the scope of FOI access to city council politicos’ emails etc. on their mobile devices. My understanding is that the city doesn’t actually provide digital technology for the politicos but instead gives the mayor and councillors a stipend for them to rent their own technology. Are the communications on these devices accessible via a FOI request?

Maybe readers have some information on this.

Perhaps it’s time to clarify this. For instance, is there FOI access to emails (and other forms of convos) between, as an example,  a developer and individual politicos over electronic devices that are at least partially-funded by the city?

What about texting and IM’ing ?

An interesting can of worms! It’ll be on my to-do list … and given the season, I’ll make sure to check it twice.

Author: Tim Lavery

Aim High Salmon Arm It matters

8 thoughts on “Political Accountability in Discussions and Decision-Making in our Digital World”

  1. What about telephone calls and face-to-face conversations? Is not the problem that the public’s business (debate of ideas and alternatives, making policy and decisions) increasingly carried on outside of the appropriate place (i.e.Parliament, the Legislative Assembly, and the Council).

    1. Good morning Ian My understanding of FOI is that it applies to ‘written’ records only. I know that you have long-called for actual debate to be in public and not crafted behind doors and then presented. I feel that initiatives like those taken in Calgary where who the mayor meets with (at city hall) and a quarterly summary of expenses are posted – are good starts. They certainly don’t address your larger concerns though. My guess is that the fallout from both BC’s ethnogate scandal and Harper’s cluster-duff will translate into even more conversations and even less records ‘for the record’. It amazes me that the politicos and their staff aren’t restricted from wiping out info or using non-government channels and technology. That and the fact that FOI requests often are returned with ‘nothing on file’ even though records exist are unacceptable IMO.

  2. … and a further follow-up from BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (March 2013) in referring to Christy Clark’s office … “According to the Office of the Premier, the general practice of staff in that office is to communicate verbally and in person. We were informed that staff members do not usually use email for substantive communication relating to business matters, and that most emails are “transitory” in nature and are deleted once a permanent record, such as a calendar entry, is created. The disposal of transitory records is within the scope of the Document Disposal Act and is not within my jurisdiction under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (“FIPPA”).” … Beyond the reach …

  3. My sarcasm about conversations was my reaction to the extent that this process has come to colour our public activities. I was a public figure when the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act was first introduced in British Columbia. My first thought was dismay at the huge amount of previously available public information that was no longer to be available because there was personal information attached to it. At a stroke, this act made the workings of our governments far more hidden from public scrutiny.

    The second thing that I realized was that every piece of paper generated was a record and was required to be retained and made available if requested under a FOI inquiry. My concern was not for secrecy, but for the sheer logistics of managing my small contribution to the paper flow. From that moment on I made no notes at any meetings of council or subsequently the OUC Board. I was certain that I would be unable to comply with the requirements for retention and production of those records.

    We now have Information officers and clerks dealing with these issues at a tremendous cost that we did not need to incur. A consequence of the whole process is that much information is not freely shared. Because the process exists, information is not forthcoming until it is formally requested. Transparency has become opaque.

    The reason we need a mechanism to provide information to the public is that the responsibility and accountability of councillors, MLAs and MPs has been abandoned. In my opinion, as the people elected to be responsible for and to run our public bodies, our representatives have the right to complete disclosure of any of the activities of the organization. No FOI request is necessary. An administration or government that withholds information or gives false information to the governing council should no longer have the confidence of that body and should be removed forthwith. So, the administration is responsible to the governing body, and that body is responsible to the public. We shouldn’t need to rely upon various news organizations and advocacy groups to dig out government information and be the conduit to the people. It is only necessary after the abdication by the governing bodies of their responsibilities.

    There is a lot more that could be said but, in essence, the FOIPP acts have, at a very great cost, restricted the information available freely to the public and enabled members of the governing bodies to abandon one of the very reasons for their existence. Of course, we can’t do without them unless and until there is a willingness on the part of councillors, members of legislative assemblies, and members of Parliament to accept the duties of their roles under our system of responsible government.

  4. I would agree with what you’ve said Ian if we lived in a perfect world where free and untrammeled access to information was a goal. But we live in a world devoted to spin and propaganda where access to information other than the official version is deemed dangrous and subversive. Not certain of the source but there is a statement I read some time ago to the effect that we should believe nothing until we hear the official denial.

    With Snowden’s revelations concerning the activities of NSA and our own government spying on citizens who dare to resist the machinations of governments working hand in hand with transnational corporations, we have another twist in that now, the government has the ability to potentially know everything about us while we are treated like mushrooms..kept in the dark and fed horseshit.

    The attached interview with Glenn Greenwald is a study in real journalism vs record keeping and underlines the importance and I would say, bravery of those souls like Greenwald and Snowden who are ignoring the FOI scam and are – gosh – not trusting of the powers that be.

    http://www.truthdig.com/avbooth/item/greenwald_sacks_bbcs_stephen_sackur_20131129

  5. A comment recently heard in council chambers, ” we councillors see the big picture “, perhaps if the doors in city hall and elsewhere were removed and business was carried out in the light of day the critical mass that pays the piper could understand what brush painted the picture, and who was holding it.
    Steve is bang on, darkness grows spores and smells, sunlight is cleansing.

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