Sask. gov't email fiasco a scandal that's going to get worse

There’s another government records horror story coming out of Regina these days. And the scary part is that it’s probably only going to get worse.

Province stands to lose part of its documentary heritage, argues renowned historian

The Ministry of Social Services says former Minister Donna Harpauer's emails may not be accessible through a freedom of information request because they're stored on tapes that may have deteriorated. (CBC)

There's another government records horror story coming out of Regina these days. And the scary part is that it's probably only going to get worse.

A few months ago, Premier Brad Wall was criticized for using a private email server for government business.

Now, the public has learned — thanks to a CBC freedom of information request — that Ministry of Social Service emails, dating back to 2008 and 2009, may not be in a readable format. The emails have been stored on tapes that "deteriorate and break down over time," and if the CBC wants access to the material, then it has to pay $96,000 (no, that is not a typo) to see if the tapes can still be read.

Government duty-bound

There are several problems here.

All government-related business must be conducted on government email servers that are not only secure, but supported by the necessary resources and expertise.

Government departments and agencies produce and collect a wealth of information (including emails), and it is imperative that these digital records not be held on different servers.

One of the challenges of digital records, including email, is keeping track of the location and extent of the material. It's not easy, but it has to be done or these records risk becoming misplaced or forgotten.

In fact, government departments are duty-bound to "preserve the public records that are in their custody or under their control," according to the 2015 Saskatchewan Archives and Public Records Management Act. That requirement applies to all department records, not just some of them.

That leads to another digital records challenge.

Electronic records need to be preserved so that they remain searchable and understandable. Without on-going preservation in accessible formats, digital materials — like email — are going to be lost, or at best, unintelligible and thereby inaccessible.

It's incredible, if not scandalous, that Ministry of Social Services emails for the period 2008 and 2009 were stored (backed up) on tapes that were known to deteriorate and/or breakdown over time.

It raises two worrisome questions. Was it knowingly done? Whatever the case, it's irresponsible and may be in violation of provincial legislation. And if Social Services emails were stored on degradable tapes, what other digital government records are at risk, if not already lost? The emails in question may only be the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

The Ministry of Social Services, in defending the state of the records in question, maintains that the emails are old. But that explanation raises the troubling prospect that digital government records predating 2008, just nine years ago, may no longer be "viable."

Accountability impossible

The $96,000 fee to process the CBC request is also alarming. Why is the CBC being asked to pay for an electronic records management fiasco? At the very least, the Ministry of Social Services, and the people responsible for the decision to back up the records on degradable tapes, should apologize to the people of Saskatchewan.

Democratically-elected governments are expected to be answerable to the public. But if the integrity and accessibility of digital government records are in doubt, then there can be no accountability.

It is also impossible to know today what will be historically important tomorrow. Imagine the frustration if records about residential schools or the Sixties Scoop were in an electronic format that could not be read today.

If there's a painful lesson here, it's that the provincial government and its departments must address the new record-keeping realities of the digital world and stop storing electronic records on degradable tapes. Do it right, whatever the cost.

Otherwise, Saskatchewan stands to lose not just government emails, but part of its documentary heritage.