Documents obtained by Global News under an access to information request show cabinet minister Leo Glavine relied on a private email account when he was minister of health.
The access request, regarding the Bayers Lake outpatient clinic, revealed that a government official emailed Glavine on his private email account.
The email was sent to Glavine’s Gmail account on April 20, by Rachel Boomer, the Department of Health’s acting director of communications. It’s also addressed to deputy health minister Denise Perret and several other department staff.
Last year, the province’s privacy and information commissioner, Catherine Tully, warned against the use of private email by government entities.
“The (Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner) strongly recommends that public bodies and municipalities prohibit their staff from using instant messaging tools and personal email accounts for doing business, unless they can be set up to retain and store records automatically,” reads the report.
Glavine was not made available for an interview but sent the following statement through a spokesperson.
“I am not a regular user of email and my standard practice in my time as Minister of Health and Wellness was for the department to email information and items for approval to my Executive Assistant, who would then bring it to my attention,” reads the statement. “My EA used his provincial government email address for this work.
“The email in question was a public news release that my staff wanted me to see before it went out and they needed to reach me quickly. I’ve taken steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again, regardless of the deadline.”
Boomer’s email which contained a press release and a question and answer document with talking points was also sent to Glavine’s assistant Peter Bragg.
Questions about whether Glavine used his private email account for government work on other occasions weren’t directly answered by government.
Instead, spokesperson Lisa Jarrett sent an emailed statement saying in part “there was overlap between constituency work and government work.”
Jarrett said the Gmail account in question isn’t a personal email account but rather the email Glavine uses for constituency work. The legislature’s website lists a different email for Glavine’s MLA work than the Gmail account listed in the documents obtained by Global News. Jarrett said both of the private accounts are used for his work as an MLA.
Other MLAs also use non-government email accounts.
Personal email use risks breaking the law: Commissioner
While Nova Scotia’s access laws don’t ban the use of personal email accounts, using them could put the user in conflict with the access and privacy law in several ways, Tully said in an interview with Global News.
The first is the public’s right to access records in order to hold “politicians and bureaucrats accountable to the public.”
“If you’re using personal email accounts that aren’t being produced in response to access requests, you’re undermining that right,” Tully said.
Tully said in the case of Glavine’s email, it’s clear the records were produced, but unless a personal email is linked to other government-based email chains there’s no way to verify whether all of the records related to a request are being disclosed.
A statement sent on behalf of the internal services department which oversees government email and record-keeping pointed out that ministers “receive a high volume of email and other correspondence” so it’s “not surprising that sometimes MLA email addresses get used mistakenly.”
“All ministers have been reminded of their record-keeping responsibility, including the importance of using their government email addresses when doing government business,” read the statement from internal services spokesperson Brian Taylor.
Security of personal information is also a concern according to Tully. The law requires all personal information be stored in Canada — so if personal information is shared by politicians or bureaucrats over private email servers that could be a breach of the law.
“I don’t have any evidence that that’s happening, but that’s obviously a concern,” Tully said.
Another emailed statement provided to Global News by the health department says it is “very careful about the transmission of sensitive information and patient confidentiality in all of our communications and correspondence. We are taking this opportunity to remind all staff about using government email addresses for government business.”
Tully said she wasn’t previously aware of any ministers using private email for government work.
Given the easy access to government email through personal devices like smart phones, Tully said private email use “shouldn’t have to happen.”
“It absolutely concerns me,” she said.
Tully said in her experience personal emails are sometimes used by government staff because it’s the easiest option in the moment, but she also said that doesn’t mean it’s not also used to try to avoid public scrutiny.
“There’s an implication that people are using personal email to perhaps avoid access to information requests. I don’t know that that’s necessarily true, I think sometimes people are just trying to get work done,” she said. “Am I concerned that that might be a motivation for some people? Absolutely.”
“The ideal solution is that you just don’t do it, you don’t do it, you use government email,” Tully said.
She said another concern centres on whether individuals who use private email for government work are properly archiving the records they produce.
Tully’s report says that if provincial and municipal governments and agencies and departments allow the use of personal emails then they should be “automatically and securely” retained in the public body’s digital storage.