Bill Waiser

Clear policy needed for Saskatchewan government’s digital records

So, Premier Brad Wall uses a private email server for government business. So, apparently, do all other members of the Saskatchewan Legislature.

What’s the big deal? Why did Saskatchewan’s Privacy Commissioner Ron Kruzeniski bother to investigate the matter? Shouldn’t we be happy that Premier Wall and other MLAs are using their cell phones and tablets to do their jobs, and not checking their Facebook feed or playing games?

Well, it’s not that simple nor straightforward.

As Kruzeniski recently recommended, all government-related business should be conducted on government email servers that are not only secure, but backed by the necessary resources and expertise.

That way, government records are not in different locations (i.e. stored on different servers), but accessible from a single source. And that’s important, given the nature of electronic records and the challenges they present.

Government departments and agencies may produce and collect a wealth of information, but there is no guarantee that these records are complete today or will be accessible in the future, especially the vast majority that exist in born-digital format.

And without proper digital management of these records — with content-rich metadata to make them searchable and understandable, and their ongoing preservation in accessible formats — these born-digital records are going to be lost, or at best, incomplete: unintelligible, inaccessible or inauthentic.

In fact, government departments may not even know the extent or location of all their electronic records.

In other words, they may have lost control over records that belong to history.

That brings up the other big challenge in dealing with electronic records — namely, deciding today what to keep for tomorrow.
Unlike paper records that can sit for decades before being evaluated for possible archival retention, decisions about what digital records need to be kept and preserved must be made today because of the ephemeral nature of the records.

Perhaps author Joseph Boyden unintentionally captured this situation best in the closing lines of his novel, Orenda: “But hindsight is sometimes too easy, isn’t it … What’s happened in the past can’t stay in the past for the same reason the future is always a breath away … The past and future are present.”

Archivists need to appraise the contexts of electronic record creation to ensure the extraction of those identified for long-term preservation.

Finally, if the integrity and accessibility of government electronic records is in doubt, then there can be no accountability.

Imagine the frustration if records about Indian residential schools were in an electronic format that could not be read today. Or the disappointment if electronic records dealing with Japanese-Canadian relocation during the Second World War were never properly saved.

We need open access to government records — subject to specific restrictions (including passage of time to protect privacy) — to ensure transparency.

That is how a democracy is supposed to work.

Reliable records and access to those records (keeping in mind the balance between privacy and access) are at the heart of government accountability.

So, what needs to be done?

We need to ensure that those serving or working for the provincial government use the government server for their email.

We need to ensure that government records (emails) that now exist on private servers are transferred to the government one in an accessible format.

And we need a records management infrastructure that can deal with the new record-keeping realities of the digital world.

It’s already getting late in the game.

According to author Max Foran in the Literary Review of Canada in November 2013: “We are not staring out from the cliff edge of profound change so much as watching the ground crumble beneath us, a collapse suitably heedless, remorseless and fast.”

Unless something is done — and soon — we stand to lose critically valuable, born-digital documentary heritage.

That’s why Premier Wall’s government email matters. It not only needs to be preserved, but accessible for decades to come.

Otherwise, if these and other kinds of digital records are lost, we are on the cusp of a new dark age. And history and accountability will be big losers.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Imagine the frustration if records about Indian residential schools were in an electronic format that could not be read today.

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers