Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

The paper trail

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“There have always been oral meetings that don’t have much of a paper trail. I don’t think that’s anything particularly new,” he said.

That’s Former parliamentary secretary to the premier John Les talking to the CBC today in response to the B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner recommendations following an investigation that began after a number of Freedom of Information requests to the premier’s office came back empty.

There’s a real danger in using language that includes words like “always”. My partner, for instance, talks about buildings in Vancouver that she says “have always been there” when what she means is “I don’t remember them not being there.”

I have been out of the civil service now for many years – but early on I made it a practice to have with me a hard bound notebook. A journal if you like. It went with me everywhere. This was long before civil servants were issued with Blackberries. But to me it was essential, especially when sent to attend meetings. The instruction always was “make good notes”. Sometimes, those notes got turned into more formal documents – but they were always useful when minuted meetings took place – because the notes could then be compared to the official record. And I often logged important information as I was engaged in other activities. If I met someone in a corridor, say, and I needed to record a telephone number. Or if I was on the phone and it seemed likely that a record of that call might be needed later.

All of this was started long before there was a Freedom of Information Act. But boy was it useful if there was any later repercussion. I think that this all started when I was a student. Lecture notes were essential – if for no other reason than to stay focussed. Maybe that’s why I still fill my blog with lecture notes. You can now compare if I am any good at them by looking at the Carbon Talks video and my blog post. I confess I have already filled in one gap when my scribble was unreadable – but now I can see that I wrote something very like what was said.

I have also found myself at various times under cross examination and my notes have indeed been called into evidence. And that’s a Good Thing, since memory is fallible – increasingly so with age, unfortunately.

Once upon a time, in the service of H M Government in the United Kingdom I was subject to the Official Secrets Act  – a very bad piece of hastily drawn up legislation that originated in 1914 and was a total catch all. If I told you the price of a cup of tea in the staff canteen at the Department of Transport we would both be guilty of an offence. The existence of a canteen was itself an Official Secret. FoI was supposed to change all that. Indeed working for the BC Government I can recall more than one occasion when the response to a sloppily worded FoI request was to simply bombard the enquirer with so much information it would be a Very Long Time Indeed before they found what they really wanted.

It is also the case that more than once I got called onto the carpet because I had written down what was said. And the person writing the minutes wanted them to show what ought to have been said instead. Being honest can make you very unpopular indeed.

But it is only recently – that is to say within the last ten years at least – when custom and practice within the BC civil service has been to conduct business in such a way that any FoI request could be frustrated. It may have always happened at the exalted level of the Premier’s office, but somehow I don’t think so. It is only a government which now has problems when it has to explain who said what to whom that this gets out of hand.

The BC Liberals have – and “always” have had – a lot that they would prefer to be not subject to FoI. If you have nothing to be ashamed of, there is no reason at all why there should not be a record. It is only when you know you do not want to be caught that you make sure there is no paper trail.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 7, 2013 at 2:10 pm

One Response

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  1. Once every public servant is mandated to wear Google Glass (or a Grain or Sight), where will they do their back-room deals?


    neil21 (@neil21)

    March 7, 2013 at 5:02 pm

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