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OIPC Releases Investigation into Management of GoA Emails

March 12, 2019

The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) released an investigation report under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP Act) that looked into the management and storage of email at four Government of Alberta (GoA) departments – Service Alberta, Alberta Transportation, Alberta Education and Executive Council.

“Overall, this investigation reinforces the fundamental importance of a comprehensive, effective records management program to ensure that public bodies are able to fulfil their access and privacy obligations under the FOIP Act, and for meeting other business and legal responsibilities,” said Commissioner Jill Clayton.

The investigation was opened after the Official Opposition wrote to the Commissioner outlining several concerns about the GoA’s use of email based on access to information request responses it had received from GoA departments. The Official Opposition also issued a news release on September 28, 2017. The letter and news release included allegations that the GoA deleted at least 859,861 emails between the fall of 2015 and the spring of 2016, and that Alberta Transportation offered a draw for a gift card for employees who deleted the most emails.

“The Official Opposition’s allegations were unsubstantiated by this investigation. However, the access requests and subsequent public interest helped to initiate internal reviews with the aim to improve the use of email in the context of the Government of Alberta’s records management program,” said Clayton.

In addition to releasing the investigation report, the OIPC developed “Guidelines for Managing Emails” for organizations in the public, health and private sectors that may seek assistance in drafting policies and best practices for capturing corporate emails as official records. A one-page tips sheet was also issued.

Background

In December 2015, the Official Opposition requested the number of emails stored within inboxes of senior government and political staff under the FOIP Act. Similar requests were made in February 2016 and the spring of 2016, which requested not only the number of emails in inboxes, but also the number of emails in sent, deleted and draft folders. Data gathered from these access requests was analyzed in a report.

On September 28, 2017 the Official Opposition wrote a letter to the Commissioner and issued a news release outlining concerns and allegations about the GoA’s use of email. On October 27, 2017, the Commissioner opened this investigation. In December 2017, the Commissioner retained the services of MT>3, a division of McCarthy Tétrault LLP, to investigate this matter.

The information gathered in this investigation included:

  • Details on how Service Alberta responded to the access requests, a description of the GoA’s email system, and Service Alberta’s role in setting, communicating and monitoring email usage and retention policies and procedures.
  • What email management policies, standards and education initiatives were in place before and after the access requests at Alberta Education and Alberta Transportation.
  • Interviews with eight people who were randomly chosen for face-to-face interviews to ascertain their email management and retention activities. The interviewees were selected from a list of senior GoA and political staff members, identified by the Official Opposition through their analysis of the information provided by the access requests, as having either very few emails in their entire mailbox or inbox folder or having a significant reduction in emails between the first and second access requests.

Based on the information gathered during the investigation and analysis of relevant GoA record management regulations, policies, standards and procedures, the investigation made several findings.

The investigation found that Service Alberta’s guidelines, standards and procedures for information and email management are detailed and emphasize the need to identify and segregate official records from transitory records. However, there was no consistent storage location for official records in GoA departments, training was not compulsory in all departments, and a compliance assessment program had not been established to ensure that staff members receive training and are following the records management plan for their department. Service Alberta indicated it was in the process of developing an information management reporting and compliance program, but no details were provided.

The investigation also found that the number of emails in a staff member’s inbox has no bearing on whether official records are properly identified and retained. The investigation concluded a majority of email mailboxes retained more records than required. It appeared that most staff erred on the side of caution and kept emails rather than disposing of emails, and managed these emails by creating subfolders to which emails were transferred from inboxes.  However, two interviewees said they actively deleted most emails. These two senior staff members said that they primarily sent and received requests for information and considered these not to be official records. The investigation noted that requests and replies for information would likely support business decisions and should be considered official records.

Based on the conclusions, the investigation made three recommendations that centred on what Service Alberta’s information management compliance program should include and that Service Alberta should begin planning to implement a government-wide official records electronic storage repository.

The investigation report is available on the OIPC website at:

The guidance documents are also available on the OIPC website at:

The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta works independently of government to uphold the access and privacy rights of all Albertans.

Contact
Scott Sibbald
Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner
(780) 422-9048