15 June 2009

Freedom from information: lack of briefing notes for minister called “bizarre” by senior government official

An unnamed senior public sector manager has termed a move by government to eliminate briefing notes for ministers “bizarre”.

The official is quoted in a post by Telegram blogger Geoff Meeker.  The unidentified official spoke only on condition of anonymity.

“I don't think it's possible to keep up to speed without a briefing book,” said the person, who has worked at some of the highest levels of the public service.

“It will make it very difficult to understand, in retrospect, why certain decisions were made - very dangerous for the staff who must execute them and very problematic if one needs to retrace and do a course-correction on something that's gone off the rails. Without briefing books, corporate memory is very much reduced and future government decisions rendered more difficult.”

The comment came after another Telegram story (not online) in which Joan Burke, government house leader and minister of a newly created child, youth and family services department, said that she had received no briefing notes when taking over her new portfolio. Burke told the Telegram’s Rob Antle that

“I didn’t want to be handed a binder with 500 to 1,000 sheets of paper to try to determine what’s important and what’s not, and what’s current and what I need on my radar.”

As Meeker points out, Burke’s attitude may have little to do with what she described as her desire to get down to work.

Burke was embroiled in a controversy last year over the hiring of a new president for Memorial University.  Details of the minister’s involvement became embarrassing when the Liberal opposition office obtained copies of government records through the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and provided them to local media.

The documents including e-mails and briefing notes that included questions for Burke to use during her screening interviews with the two finalists selected by the university’s hiring process.  Burke rejected both candidates.

Briefing notes have also proved embarrassing for other cabinet ministers.

A note prepared for Burke’s successor in November 2008 on financial implications of “autonomy” for Grenfell College from Memorial University, another controversial policy from Burke’s tenure in education, was virtually completed deleted before being released under the province’s open records laws.  While promised two years ago, there is still no sign of the enabling legislation.

During the Cameron inquiry into the hormone receptor scandal, health minister Ross Wiseman stated under oath that he had not read briefing notes on the issue when he took over the portfolio.  As CBC reported,

… Wiseman said he did not have the opportunity to read briefing notes about the cancer testing after he was sworn in as health minister, because he was busy tackling other pressing issues and preparing for the annual budget.

Opposition politicians have also claimed that ministers apparently no longer receive briefing notes to use in preparation for the House of Assembly.

Meeker’s public sector manager also described some of the concerns about the new policy which would see the elimination of any paper trail of documents and backgrounders for ministers. 

“Without briefing documents, the public can never really know what grounds decisions were made on - cutting the foundation out from under transparency and accountability, not to mention history - how will future generations understand the story of this government and this time without primary research sources?

“This puts a great burden on senior and mid-level public officials to keep good records in their own briefing books and black books. These would be accessible under ATIPP, but that leaves the paper trail with the officials, not the Minister. And if they don't keep good records, well - we all heard during the Cameron inquiry how difficult it is for these busy, busy people [cabinet ministers and political staff] to recall details from 6 or 12 months ago.”

That last point is particularly cogent:  at one point during the inquiry, an exasperated commissioner Justice Margaret Cameron commented that many of the witnesses seemed to have difficulty recalling anything at all. 

The premier's chief of staff, Brian Crawley, was sent an e-mail in July, 2005 that warned of a major story about to break involving breast cancer testing mistakes.

But Crawley testified he can't remember getting the e-mail or even talking to anyone in the premier's office — including the premier — about it.

"I really don't remember anything about those early days at all," he said.

Judge Margaret Cameron asked Crawley whether he remembered any of the events of July and he responded, "No."

"You don't remember seeing anything about this until the story broke in the Independent [Newfoundland & Labrador Independent newspaper] and you don't even really remember reading the Independent story," she said.

Crawley was not alone and that exchange prompted an angry premier Danny Williams to criticise Cameron over the remark, as cbc.ca/nl reported:

When Crawley answered one question about what he would have done in a situation, Cameron replied, "Well, I'm getting a lot of that, 'This is what I would've done,' but nobody ever remembers seemingly having done much."

On Friday, Williams fired back.

"I have to say I was disappointed. I was disappointed as I watched Madame Justice Cameron show disdain for a professional witness who was before her, giving testimony, honestly, forthright, under oath, to the best of his or her ability," Williams told reporters.

Meeker’s post and the comments by the unnamed official echo concerns identified in Donald Savoie’s recent book on the erosion of accountability at White hall and in Ottawa.

In Court government: the collapse of accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom, Savoie documents a similar practice of eliminating briefing notes and other official written documents in order to avoid the access to information laws.

In addition to the move to eliminate a paper trail, Savoie also notes concerns among politicians with whistleblower legislation as part of a larger trend away from government openness and internal and external accountability.

Savoie also points to the appearance of unofficial practices within the administration of government that are also designed to avoid disclosure under access to information laws.  For example, one study cited by Savoie found that requests from politicians and the media took longer to process than those from others even though there did not appear to be any particular difference in one request from another.   

Similar efforts by officials to skirt open records laws have already been noted in Newfoundland and Labrador.

For example, officials have invented a concept called non-responsive records to refer to documents which are apparently covered by an access request but which are not  released. One of the Burke e-mails on Memorial University, for example, includes a deletion marked “non-responsive” rather than use the official requirement to cite a specific section of the access law under which a deletion is made.

Perhaps the most notorious example was a claim that records did not exist even though the Premier and other officials acknowledged that they did.

In another case, access to documents was denied on the grounds that the review was ongoing.  The request had not been for a final report but for documents relating to the study and an accounting of its costs.

Officials have also been able to avoid disclosure based on questionable claims about the scope of the request.