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Michael Wernick, who was the federal government’s Clerk of the Privy Council from 2016 to 2019, says there was overall a lack of dedication to recordkeeping in Ottawa and a great 'mess of things.'CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

The former head of the federal public service says neglect and underinvestment in recordkeeping is undermining the government’s “lofty language” about its commitment to open government, and making it harder to locate documents people ask for under access-to-information law.

Michael Wernick says the government’s archives resemble a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie, with boxes and boxes of records waiting to be scanned, sorted and organized.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he said “the language of open government” … is built on “a very shaky foundation” because of a lack of investment in organizing records so they can be easily located.

He said there was a disconnect “between rhetoric and delivery” when it came to Ottawa’s stated commitment to open government.

“As with many things with this government … there is a gap between the lofty language and the execution or delivery,” he said. “What you will find is it is very spotty.”

Ottawa’s National Action Plan on Open Government commits it to being more transparent and accountable.

The Access to Information Act also places a legal requirement on the government to keep organized records and to publish guides each year to help people find them.

The act requires it to publish a detailed description of the types of records held by government departments.

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“Open Government is about making government more accessible to everyone. This means giving greater access to government data and information to the Canadian public and the businesses community,” the government’s website on open government says.

Mr. Wernick, who was the federal government’s top bureaucrat – the Clerk of the Privy Council – from 2016 to 2019, said there was overall a lack of dedication to recordkeeping in Ottawa and a great “mess of things.”

Records were scattered around different government departments on floppy discs, diskettes, paper record files and in boxes, as well as on servers and in the Cloud.

He told The Globe that some federal departments and institutions organized their records well and had put tools in place to make them easy to find, but others were chaotic.

“Like many things, you’ll find pockets of excellence and some really cool things that are happening, and then there are other areas which are … rusted and shambolic. There’s a lack of consistency of effort around,” he said.

He said the amount of information being generated by the government – including e-mails – was more than its “absorption capacity” to get it digitized and scanned.

The government’s archive, he said, has “an enormous warehouse, like something out of Indiana Jones movies” full of boxes of records waiting to be organized, but there are neither the people nor the money to do it.

He said there should be more investment in developing search tools so that government records can be easily located, including if someone requests them under freedom-of-information laws. Organizing records would also help the federal policy of proactive disclosure, he said.

“What is really important is the navigation and recordkeeping. It’s just so uneven,” he said.

Mr. Wernick said with some records dating back centuries, as well as stacks of paper and a plethora of e-mails, deciding what to keep for posterity was a skill.

Retrieval and information management should be an integral part of an open-government agenda, including how to tag, classify and sort records, he said, but it was far down the government’s priority list.

He said “investing in basic conservation” and protecting records from flood and fire was also crucial, to stop them from being degraded.

Mr. Wernick told a Commons committee last month that the offices of the prime minister and federal ministers should no longer be exempt from access-to-information law, and there should be a greater onus in Ottawa on pro-actively disclosing as much information to the public as possible.

Monica Granados, press secretary to Treasury Board president Mona Fortier, said the government has “enshrined pro-active publication in law, strengthening openness and transparency across government.”

“The open-government portal now holds 34,000 data/information records, 2 million pro-active disclosures from more than 160 institutions, as well as summaries of completed access-to-information requests,” she said.

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