Record Keeping Initiative within the Government of Canada

Caroline Vandriel, a MLIS student from the University of Western Ontario on co-op in Ottawa, attended the Canada School of Public Service's armchair discussion about recordkeeping in the Government of Canada and prepared this article.


On June 14, Ian Wilson, Librarian and Archivist of Canada, spoke at the Canada School of Public Service on the topic of Records Management. The tone set by his opening archival jokes belied the seriousness of the message to come: that records management within the Government of Canada is fundamentally flawed.

Records management suffered a major setback in the 1990s with the introduction of the computer. Prior to this, secretaries had, as part of their job description, the responsibility of organizing and filing information. But with the advent of the computer, the assumption was made that this function was automatically taken care of by the new technology. Files were stored in the hard drive, so employees no longer had to be responsible for them. When systems were clogged and slowed, older documents were deleted and lost. The matter progressed to the degree that government officials no longer kept any records, or kept all records. Neither situation is conducive to an effective system of record management.

Wilson spoke of his various meetings with DGs at Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) and other departments to assess the situation and provide some possible solutions. They began by looking for drivers for change; what reason do employees have to make changes, and how will these changes make a difference. Some conclusions drawn were:

  1. Programs and services rely on good records management.
  2. Ease of access to information is essential to finding information and the proper disposal of information.
  3. Good records management provides accountability.
  4. Decision making and policy development rely heavily on records management.
  5. Auditors do not care what you have done; they care about the records of what you have done. They are looking for the integrity, completeness and availability of records.
While looking for practical solutions, six working sub-committees determined that records are a key asset of government and should to be recognized as such. The view that records are a waste by-product must change. In all, six points were developed:
  1. An auditor and responsibility for records must be determined.
  2. Record keeping has to be valued, and should be added to job descriptions.
  3. A risk mitigation strategy needs to be developed.
  4. Currently there is no trusted digital repository to store records for about 100 years. Something needs to be developed.
  5. Legacy solutions are essential, in an age when technology manufacturers are about obsolescence, not sustainability.
  6. An increased capacity in areas of people, training and funding will be needed. Not all records can be automated (such as the 11 million cubic square feet of records at Archives), so muscle and sweat will also be required.
Records management needs support, funding and a regulatory regime. The problem is recognized at the highest levels of government, and steps are being taken to provide solutions for the future. Colleagues must be convinced to rethink the idea of a record as evidence that something has happened. We need documentation standards and to learn to keep only the records we need.

During the following question and answer period, nine issues were raised.

1. The first question was over the use of the word “asset” in regards to information and whether it was allowed in official written documents. Wilson responded that he used the word, as information is something to be valued, and anything with value is an asset. However, he did mention that care should be taken when using the term when in the company of finance people as they tended not to appreciate the context or accept information as an asset.

2. The second questioner, who deliberately omitted to say her department, asked whether CIOs understood the value of information management. Her situation was the inability to delete records as they were protected in an e-vault. Wilson responded that CIOs did not understand information, just records and that their focus tended to be IT. Part of the problem was that information management is too vague a term, and people do not know how to measure success in records management.

3. The following speaker wondered if in the impact of records as a valuable asset, whether RDAs would continue as a tool. Wilson agreed that while RDAs (Record Disposition Authorities) worked theoretically, in practice they were too unwieldy and needed to be rendered more user-friendly.

4. Speaking on behalf of departments with offices in remote regions, the following question inquired as to whether remoteness was being factored into the discussions. Wilson used CIC as an example of having records all over the world which need to all come back to Canada. He claimed these situations were being considered and suggested making use of the private sector for ideas.

5. The fifth question was concerned with the number of records being created. In the changing environment of records keeping, were as many records being created? This is a matter of values and ethics, Wilson claimed. You cannot legislate the creation of records as such legislation would not be enforceable, but this issue is one that is part of the current culture of record keeping that needs to be altered. He mentioned Wikinomics (by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams) as the ideal that the government should embrace, and suggested changing libraries to knowledge providers. He was advocating proactive disclosure.

6. An employee at the Privy Council bemoaned the fact that e-documents were not considered to have integrity, and that employees there printed copies of everything! Wilson agreed that better storage was needed for paper documents and claimed that they were within a year of being certified as a trusted digital repository.

7. The following participant worried that there was less concern of the content of the information, and that once the content was acknowledged then the value would be recognized. Wilson reiterated that libraries need to focus on centers of knowledge, rather than document repositories. He also claimed that if all government employees used collaborative software, as that created by OpenText, then the improvement in functionality would be vast.

8. During the next question regarding the interaction of TBS and Library and Archives Canada with IM, and employee of TBS stood up to respond. There are plans to foster community and coordination, but they were waiting for it to come down from above. Currently there are monthly meetings. The speaker stated frankly that we need to learn from each other and that suggestions were appreciated.

9. The final question was in regards to security training issues and whether this added another layer to the records keeping challenge. The US spends millions on declassifying information and there are documents in the Canadian system that should have been declassified more than 50 years ago. Wilson spoke in favour of transparency, and that the process needs to be reviewed. He concluded by asking how many great secrets does the Government of Canada have, implying that there could not be many.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My comment is related to the statement "that records management within the Government of Canada is fundamentally flawed. Records management suffered a major setback in the 1990s with the introduction of the computer."

That government chose not to resource records management is the flaw, records management is not flawed! The whole world looked to Canada Records Management systems, processes and methodologies during the 70 and 80's; downsizing killed records management, and National Archives took the records management program from a branch, to a division, to a sector, to an office - what once was an organization of 300 people is now a group of ten or so, re-inventing the wheel, trying to achieve past glory.