Watchdog finds no controls on Alberta government document shredding

Report also found there are no penalties for anyone who improperly destroys records

alberta legislature

EDMONTON — Government watchdogs say there is confusion, contradictions, no oversight, and no control over what documents get shredded at the Alberta government — and there are no penalties for rule-breakers.

“Everything is obscure. Nothing is clear,” Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton told a news conference Thursday.

“The easy application (of the rules) is lost in this maze of (document) retention schedules and rules.

“We had a strong sense that staff don’t really understand how to apply them.”

Clayton and Public Interest Commissioner Peter Hourihan issued a report following an investigation that was launched last year into reports that documents were being shredded by officials in the Environment Department around the time the Progressive Conservative government lost the election to Rachel Notley and the NDP.

The department was run at the time by Tory Kyle Fawcett, who was defeated in the May 5 vote.

Clayton said investigators didn’t interview Fawcett because they did not consider his information relevant given that it was his officials who were responsible for handling the documents.

The investigation found that 344 boxes of high-level briefing material and ministerial correspondence were improperly shredded in the days just before and following the election.

The report said investigators could not find an order to wrongly destroy the documents, but there was confusion and conflicting policies over what could be shredded and why.

As the watchdogs dug deeper, they found the problems extended far beyond the Environment Department to encompass the entire government.

The report said that Service Alberta, the department responsible for rules about shredding, doesn’t monitor what happens.

Some Service Alberta officials described to investigators a “dog’s breakfast” of confusing and contradictory regulations. Some staffers characterized management of the system as “a huge hole.”

The report quoted senior records officials in departments complaining that they were held responsible when problems arose, but had no budget, mandate, or authority to get things done.

On top of that, it noted, there are no sanctions for those who break the rules.

Clayton said a system with no sanctions for non-compliance is a non-starter.

“There needs to be some sanctions,” she said.

“The overriding issue that we’re seeing with this records management program is that there’s a lack of support, there’s a lack of monitoring, and there are no consequences.”

Service Alberta Minister Danielle Larivee said in a statement that they are looking into implementing the report’s recommendations to improve the system and make it more accountable.

“It’s clear that there were a number of problems with record keeping under the previous government,” said Larivee.

“The recommendations in this report help us identify some specific ways to improve.”

Fawcett could not immediately be reached for comment.

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark, who called for action at the time reports of shredding first surfaced, said Notley’s government should have acted faster.

“I just wish the NDP had taken it seriously then,” said Clark. “If they did, maybe some of those 344 boxes or records wouldn’t have been destroyed,” he said.

Notley ordered a halt to government-wide shredding eight days after the election, but that order was eventually lifted.

PC Leader Ric McIver said the Tories support changes to improve the system and added: “We are pleased to see that this report determined that the allegations of (intentional) wrongdoing were unfounded.”

The Opposition Wildrose and Liberal parties agreed that the recommendations need to be implemented to get the program back on track.

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