Manitoba Government Deactivated Email Accounts That Sourced Millions in COVID-19 Contracts
Experts say deactivating email accounts is ‘very unusual’ and ‘troubling’
Manitoba’s Department of Finance deactivated email accounts used by bureaucrats who worked on contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, despite rules aimed at promoting transparency and public accountability.
In the early months of the pandemic, Manitoba earmarked $400 million in emergency spending to respond to COVID-19 and procure personal protective equipment.
To help speed up spending, the province created a temporary “Emergency PPE Procurement Sourcing Team” through Manitoba’s Department of Central Services.
Nearly three years later, Manitoba’s government says it had trouble finding emails from its PPE procurement team after their work wrapped up.
Following a six month delay in releasing records about COVID-19 contracts requested through Freedom of Information (FIPPA), Manitoba’s Ombudsman told PressProgress part of the delay was because Manitoba Finance shut down the procurement team’s email accounts.
“During our intake inquiries with Manitoba Finance, we received some information about the status of (the) access request,” the Ombudsman wrote in a letter to PressProgress.
“Based on the information Manitoba Finance provided to our office, it appears the department is working with its IT services to restore mailboxes of employees who no longer work for procurement services in order to conduct an adequate search.”
Kevin Walby, Director for Centre for the Access to Information and Justice at the University of Winnipeg, says Manitoba Finance’s deactivation of email accounts is “very unusual.”
“I’m pretty confident in saying that it’s very unusual to receive an indication from a government that, ‘Oh, sorry, those records aren’t available just because we’ve deactivated those accounts,’” Walby told PressProgress.
“I have never, ever got a response saying those email addresses or accounts have been deactivated,” Walby said. “My understanding is that that goes against all of the policy that exists in government on records management.”
“I have not come across that in Manitoba, I’ve not come across it using access to information at the federal level, I have not come across it in any other provincial or territorial jurisdiction.”
The email deactivations provide further insight into Manitoba Finance’s ongoing issues with preserving government records.
A 2020 Ombudsman report noted Manitoba Finance provided “insufficient documentation” about processing FIPPA requests to be able to “identify where delays were occurring.” What FIPPA documentation did exist was “stored in various locations and not in a centralized FIPPA file that would facilitate efficient processing of requests.”
The “duty to document” is the expectation that “ministers’ offices will create full and accurate records of all actions, decisions, communications, and other activities related to the official business of the office,” according to guidelines for Managing Ministers’ Office Records.
“Full documentation is needed for continuity and effective government administration. It also enables the government to account for its actions – not just to the public under freedom of information laws, but also to the legislature, auditors, public inquiries, and the Courts,” the guidelines state.
Manitoba Finance declined to provide details about its internal record keeping policies, claiming this could only be disclosed through a FIPPA request. PressProgress has filed a FIPPA request seeking details about Manitoba Finance’s record keeping policies.
Greg Bak, an Archival Studies professor at the University of Manitoba and a former senior digital archivist specializing in government records at Library and Archives Canada, says Manitoba Finance deactivating email accounts only 3 years old is “troubling.”
“This is troubling in the sense that digital records don’t keep really well if they’re not being managed well,” Bak told PressProgress.
“The overarching problem is a lack of information management going on at Finance. Why are they having to resurrect email accounts at all?”
“Is this a short term problem? Or is this the beginning of the records basically falling into a state of chaos and eventually becoming technologically obsolete due to software and hardware dependencies and so on?”
Manitoba Finance must preserve government records based on their function, Bak explains, not based on how old they are or whether the employees who created them still work there. And while emails are considered government records, email accounts are not adequate record keeping systems. Manitoba Finance must extract the information within the accounts and file it in a departmental record keeping system. Finance must also determine how long the records need to be retained for legal purposes before they get transferred to the Archives of Manitoba.
While the COVID-19 pandemic created unique challenges for governments, it also exacerbated systemic weaknesses in record keeping policies.
“It’s understandable that there’s a little bit of chaos,” Bak says. “It’s also understandable that you’ve got a situation where, because there was this massive hire in order to get the PPE out the door, you’ve got a similarly large bump of records that haven’t been digested yet.”
“The question is: What is Finance doing about it? Do they have procedures in place so that these records will be extracted from these email accounts?”
Tom Nesmith, Professor Emeritus of Archival Studies at the University of Manitoba and a former archivist at the Library and Archives Canada, says the Archives of Manitoba also do not have the infrastructure to handle the massive amounts of digital records created by the government. This means government departments become the home for more archival records than they can responsibly manage.
“I think there are red flags raised here,” Nesmith told PressProgress. “There’s really no accountability without access to records, there’s no real democracy without access to records.”
“The department is saying, ‘We have all these other things we have to do, we’ll just leave things in deactivated accounts. If somebody wants to see them, fine, they can come, but it’s not our job to make it that much easier for you.’”
Manitoba has not invested in adequate digital record keeping systems for government departments or the archives, Nesmith says, and the same problem can be found in all levels of government across Canada.
This poses a problem for historical documentation of the pandemic, Nesmith adds. Researchers and policy makers will be interested in studying Manitoba’s response to the pandemic for decades to come.
“You had this problem after a couple of years into the pandemic – what happens much longer after these records age?” Nesmith says. “There are big, big issues there.”
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