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A Bureaucratic Reflex

The turn of phrase above comes from a 2017 CBC article decrying overclassification in the intelligence community of Canada. I believe this problem extends to the public service write large. I don’t believe this problem lies at the feet of the rank and file civil service, though. The problem comes from a highly risk-averse culture.

The classification and protection of documents is, on paper, an exercise at determining the risks inherent in the release of that information. Take the example of Protected B information, which is defined as:

Protected B

Applies to information or assets that, if compromised, could cause serious injury to an individual, organization or government.

Levels of Screening – Public Service and Procurement Canada

In my experience in Government, Protected B is used consistently on any documents that contain identifying information about an individual or organization. The average person is not capable of making clear, consistent, risk assessments.

With a recent push throughout all levels of government to “work in the open,” it is essential that we get a better handle on how and why we classify documents. If not to improve how we function, then because over-classification is extremely expensive.

How? I think we need to start by making better training materials for classification, marking, and handling. The mandatory training is extremely dry and filled with definitions. It could use more scenario-based learning. While expensive, I also think in-person training could be beneficial to discuss and apply concepts. Finally, we need to have a more robust system for auditing classification appropriateness and a clear process for re-classifying a record to a lower level.

Additionally, we need to improve and modernize our handling of protected and classified documents to remove the reliance on paper and USB keys. We should always be able to submit files to other government departments via secured, encrypted, email.

The risk-averse nature of government, coupled with policies and procedures developed at a different time, has lead the public service to err on the side of caution and over-classify. Public servants, in my experience, are passionate, conscientious, and open to change. If anyone can improve this situation, it’s them.

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