Freedom from Information: Ken Dobell foils the government record

It is almost the first anniversary of the conference on the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, at which the head of BC’s civil service thumbed his nose at the concept of public access to government records.

Ken Dobell, the Deputy Minister to the Premier, proudly announced his dislike of the “FOI” process, and revealed his strategy for foiling public requests for records of his work: he destroys the records. That is, he destroys a significant portion of the records, his e-mail. “I delete them as soon as I get them,” he told a rather surprised gathering of reporters and government officials.

In the wake of the media kerfuffle that followed, the government issued some muted acknowledgements that Mr Dobell’s practice of destroying his e-mail records was not appropriate, that other government staff should not follow suit, and implied that Mr Dobell had improved his ways.

He hasn’t.

Concerned about the precedent Mr Dobell was setting, and hoping to salvage some element of thre records of BC’s top bureaucrat, Dogwood Initiative filed an FOI request for all of Mr Dobell’s e-mail since he joined the civil service in June 2001, including a copy of all the e-mail archived on the government system. We filed the request on November 26, to see what he had been doing in the two months subsequent to the conference.

After five months of delay explained only by the need to consult other parties about the content of the e-mails, the government released to us eleven e-mail messages, most of them less than half a page in length, containing very little text other than a reference to an attachment. (The attachments were excluded, comically, to “speed up” the consultation process; Dogwood has now requested copies of the attachments, and are receiving edited versions of the documents in fitful installments.)

Five of the messages were from November 26, the day of the request, and two were from the three days before. Three were from November 17, and the last was dated October 26. These are, according to Mr Dobell’s FOI staff, the only e-mails on his system, in any folder.

This is quite a feat of diligent deleting. For most of us, e-mail accumulates in our inbox, or in the folders in which we file it, keeping it handy to check later. Nor Mr Dobell. Whether it be a business record, which must be preserved, or a transitory e-mail such as a lunch invitation, which isn’t required to be kept, he deletes ’em all, and quickly.

Either that or almost no one e-mails him, and he sends no e-mail. (Interestingly, not one of the notes was sent by Mr Dobell–he must have his “Sent” folder set to delete automatically, when he turns his computer off each night.)

As for an archive of the e-mails he has been deleting, the government hid behind a policy of not looking into the archive, in response to FOI requests. That policy might make sense where the government employees are properly keeping their important records, in electronic and hard copy form. But, when that’s the only place the records might be, this policy makes no sense.

We have filed an appeal of the government’s response to this FOI request, and are waiting to talk with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner about it. We will continue to post bulletins on this story as the appeal proceeds, and we learn more about Mr Dobell’s practice of foiling the public’s right to know, and undermining the FOI Act.

And we’ll be posting all the material we receive from Mr Dobell on the site, as a means of correcting the record, even in, of necessity, a rather paltry way.

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