Two Canadian information and privacy commissioners – Elizabeth Denham, in British Columbia in March, and Ann Cavoukian in Ontario this week – have criticized an emerging practice among politicians and political staffers of not communicating with each other by e-mail, apparently to avoid revealing their thoughts in responses to freedom-of-information requests.
While officials should certainly create written records of actual decisions, cabinet ministers and their closest advisers should be free to talk about the reasons for a decision without making a paper or electronic memorandum. Their motives and purposes are best scrutinized in parliamentary debate, question periods and legislative committees.
None of this justifies the wholesale destruction of some archives of e-mails – hard drives “wiped clean” – such as occurred after Dalton McGuinty ceased to be the premier of Ontario, whether or not there was any particular intention to eliminate messages about the extremely expensive cancellation of two gas-plant projects, perhaps for political motives.
In B.C., Ms. Denham found that answers of “no responsive records” to FOI requests had much increased, most notably from the office of Premier Christy Clark. Ms. Clark’s staff explained that they mostly communicated verbally and in person. Ms. Denham found no illegalities, but recommended the creation of a duty to document key decisions. On Tuesday, Dr. Cavoukian endorsed that idea, which in itself is a good one.
But they both went further, saying that, without such a duty, a government can “avoid public scrutiny of the rationale for its actions.” Such rationales are inevitably mixed; politics and the common good are not easy to separate. Ministers and their staffs should be able to deliberate informally, without having to disclose their every passing thought.