No Paper Trail

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Public servant says
new policy is "bizarre"

It was an important story, but it didnt have legs.

In fact, it has disappeared from public discussion.

More than a week ago (June 6), The Telegram ran a story top of page three with the headline, No paper trail for briefings in new portfolio.

The story, by Rob Antle (which is not online), told us that Joan Burke, Minister of the newly-created Department of Family Services, will not, in future, receive any information on paper.

According to the Telegram story, there will be no paper or electronic trail outlining briefings for Burke.

The reason given, Burke says, sounds almost plausible if youre stupid.

Burke says she wants to dig in to her portfolio.

I didnt want to be handed a binder with 500 to 1,000 sheets of paper to try to determine whats important and whats not, and whats current and what I need on my radar.

However, the net result will be no paper trail; no responsive records when the media, or any interested party, asks for information. And never mind what happens when Burke says, The Smith file? Whats that, and exasperated staff have to thumb through binders that dont exist to tell her, yet again, what the issue is.

But dont take my word for it. This boneheaded policy is also a concern for senior government managers. I spoke with one such person, on the condition that they remain anonymous (for reasons that should be apparent to all). My source agreed that the new no paper policy is bizarre.

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.

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 to recall details from 6 or 12 months ago.

This is starting to NOT add up in a big way.

Lets call a spade a spade. Burke may be anxious to dig in, but the reason there is no paper trail is because government wants to avoid future access-to-information embarrassments.

You dont agree? Then think back to that revelation, by Rod Etheridge of CBC Here Now, that the province not only knew the infamous they should be shot news release was forthcoming, but drove the process by insisting on a Thursday that the release be issued as quickly as possible.

That story was made possible by an access-to-information request, which turned up all sorts of useful emails and handwritten notes.

And then think about this contradiction: according to Premier Williams, Health Minister Wiseman didnt review that controversial release because he was in a Big Meeting of other health care ministers, and such meetings, we have to appreciate, arent like meetings the common folk attend. On Open Line last week, host Randy Simms challenged the premier on this point, saying he, too, had sat in national meetings and knew what they were like.

Youve sat in national meetings, Williams said to Simms, but not under the pressure and the responsibility and the obligation that a finance minister or a health minister or a premier has at an actual meeting. So youre sat in a room, your officials are around you, youre focused on the topic, youre focused on the points you have to make, its in the afternoon and the meeting is winding up. Thats when the business gets done; thats when decisions are made. And a piece of paper comes in thats for your information only, not for your approval, and that particular piece of information actually does what you asked it do. [Never mind that the paper involves one of the most shocking health care stories in the provinces history GM.] The problem is, you have a right to rely on the competence and the professionalism of the people at Eastern Health to make sure that its done in a proper manner. [You also have the responsibility of oversight on an issue that you forced in the first place. GM]

Thats a lot of words from the premier. To distill it down, he is saying poor Rossie Wiseman, the minister in charge of the provinces health care system not just Eastern Health, the entire province was in the Big Meeting and couldnt be distracted by a piece of paper about breast cancer patients.

And yet Joan Burke can absorb every important policy and case file in a spoken briefing, without as much as a sticky-note to look at.

So whats the truth here? Is Rossie really unable to follow two files at once? Or is Joan Burke able to memorize hundreds?

Because it cant be both.

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  • Wayne
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    ***
    One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity there ain't nothing can beat teamwork. Mark Twain

    Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. Thomas Jefferson

    If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way. Mark Twain

    A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. James Madison

    It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so. Mark Twain

    Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe. Abraham Lincoln

    I'm generally in favour of the information getting out there. We're not running a covert government in there. We've got nothing to hide. Generally my feeling is, I'd like to have as much information as possible open, to be honest with you, because otherwise, it means we're doing something wrong, or we're doing something covert, and that's not where we're at. Daniel Williams

    Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial we. Mark Twain

    Our government will not be deterred from making the tough but smart decisions. In order to achieve great things, great vision is required. In order to affect positive change, firm leadership is essential. Not the kind of leadership that bends to critics, but the kind of leadership that stands up for what we believe in, fights for the greater good and demands respect and hope for the province we all love." Daniel Williams

    Just imagine how many tough but smart decisions we can make, how many great things we can achieve, how much positive change we can effect, how much accountability we can shed ourselves of, how much transparency we can dispense with, and how much history we can rewrite, with the kind of great vision and firm leadership it takes to decree from on high that for the greater good, respect, and hope for this province we all love, there shall be no more briefing books for ministers of the crown! Wayne Pittman