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Information Quicksand

Government is a never-ending exercise in generating work product, the vast majority of which will languish in archives for years before being destroyed. For some information, the lifecycle is even shorter, with many products disappearing within the year.

The Government of Canada’s Cabinet Directive on Regulation outlines a series of mandatory public postings about upcoming regulatory initiatives in the form of a Forward Regulatory Plan (FRP). The Policy on Transparency and Accountability requires that FRP postings be updated annually on April 1. Updates may also occur during the year. Departments and Agencies are not required to keep historical copies of previous FRPS.

As a result, there is very little historical data to allow researchers, or the general public, to compare FRPs against regulatory workloads. I have been interested in how we could keep this information and use it to inform the regulatory process (particularly ex-post facto review.

While working on the FRPs for the Canada Border Service Agency, I started developing a very simple webscraping tool to grab the relevant FRP information and store it locally. This allowed me to take snapshots of the ever-evolving document.

Since moving to Regulatory Affairs at the Canada Revenue Agency, I felt that something like this tool would be useful on a whole-of-government level. I have started tinkering to expand the use cases. You can see what I’ve done over on Github. At this point, I’m storing the local snapshots on a webserver. Once, I have a more robust, government-wide data collection effort in place, I will share the url more broadly.

Let me know if this is something you find interesting or would like to help with. I’m trying to develop more projects that allow me to explore areas of interest, but also let me use my interest in technology.

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Goodbye and thanks for all the fish!

I’ve had a weblog of some sort or another since 2001. For many years, I have enjoyed adding to the discourse and sharing my thoughts and feelings. For about two years now, I feel anxious and guilty about how little I’m posting. I have tried to cut myself slack, but in reality, I am just not enjoying it anymore.

I’m going to take an indefinite hiatus. I’ll still be around on the internet and I hope to see you there.

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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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Linkblog – April 08, 2020

  • Canada Revenue Agency Forward Regulatory Plan – Reading up on the upcoming regulatory initiatives underway at the CRA.
  • The Noun Project – I often need to find ways of bedazzling a slide or document I’m preparing. The Noun Project serves up a staggering number of black and white iconographic representations for use in your projects.
  • urlwatch – A fantastic project which allows you to monitor webpages for changes. I’ve been using this to replace my custom code for watching Government of Canada Forward Regulatory Plan sites.
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Linkblog – March 22, 2019

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