Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Summary of informal discussion at LAC - 19 September 2007

The meeting started at 2:30pm as scheduled with about 50 clients in attendance.

LAC Acting Director General for Programs and Services, Hana Hruska, opened the meeting by explaining that a quick budget cut was necessary when the section received its budget in mid-summer. Another longer-term factor is a desire to shift priority, and resources, to fund digitization projects so that datasets will be widely available via the internet.

In the previous year the section overspent its budget, which Hana explained is not possible this year. LAC regretted that consultation on the reduced hours had not been possible. CHA and one other unnamed organization were informed prior to the general announcement. About 50 organizations and individuals wrote to protest or otherwise comment on the reduced hours prior to them coming into force. None of the comments had any impact on the hours of operation. One LAC staff member acknowledged that not consulting more widely was a mistake.

LAC staff were not prepared to state what savings are being realized. We were told there have been no staff cuts so staff are able to reallocate efforts to duties other than in-building public consultation during the extra closed hours. Information from various clients suggested 40 hours of security staff time are being saved each week, at about $20/hr including overhead. That's about $800 per week, or $41,600 annually.

Perhaps the greatest impacts of the reduced hours is that people visiting from out of the Ottawa area, especially graduate students and other researchers who need access to unique materials never likely to be digitized, are unable to make efficient use of their time by working extended hours. When archival material has to be retrieved from the Gatineau Preservation Centre it is no longer possible to consult it on the day it is ordered owing to the 4 pm deadline for receiving retrievals. Delays to retrieving materials in the building, and getting access clearance, were cited as other ways in which the reduced hours eat away disproportionately into available research time.

Comments from attendees addressed a wide range of concerns at LAC, not just the hours. They reflect a lack of client-orientation in the LAC operation:

- staff attempting to eject patrons well before the advertised closing time;
- poorly maintained equipment, such as microfilm readers and printers;
- a tendency to place out of order notices on machines rather than fix them;
- microfilm printers which are awkward to use, inaccessible to the handicapped, and poorly set up for routine maintenance;
- notices on copy machines, and copyright stamps placed on copies, that are unduly restrictive given Canada's copyright regime;
- finding aids not located where they can be consulted outside the 10am-4pm weekday hours;
- unclear signage on computers to indicate whether they are for ordering library materials, or for accessing databases;
- materials left on the dumb waiter stretching 30 minute retrievals to 90 minutes;
- a general concern at reductions in professional consultation service available.

Clients attending generally agreed that the overall quality of service is declining. One former archivist mentioned that they used to boast of the first class service offered at the National Archives, now nobody does. It's more like third class. One client living in the US commented that the facilities were declining to the state of those she encountered in a third-world archives.

By a show of hands a substantial majority of the clients present indicated they favoured establishment of a user group to meet quarterly for information exchange and feedback between LAC and its clients. Hana Hruska stated that LAC was considering this.

To end on a positive note:
-an LAC staff member stated that it would likely be possible to order archival material by computer in the building at 395 Wellington starting next Spring, and over the internet sometime next year;
-Access to Information queries are now being handled in a timely manner.

Others who attended are encouraged to add comments.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

You report that LAC’s justification for their drastic changes to public service was that: first, a quick budget cut was necessary when the section received its budget in mid-summer.; and, second, a longer-term factor is a desire to shift priority, and resources, to fund digitization projects so that datasets will be widely available via the internet. As for the first point, Government of Canada (GoC) organizations know long before “mid-summer” what their budget allocations are. The GoC fiscal year and budgets start April 1st and the spending begins, to say otherwise is just so much bureaucratic bla bla. Even if it were true what were the cuts (from what $/people to what $/people) and how was the overall budget of the LAC affected? Why was the main area of public interface of an institution with such a public face so drastically impacted? There is more here than what was discussed at the “informal” event. On the second point, the shift of priorities and resources in support of digitization, what evidence was provided that this is indeed happening? When I asked for a copy of the LAC’s short and long term digitization plans a few months back, I was told quite simply that such plans did not exist. I was then told by the Doug Rimmer, Assistant Deputy Minister for Programs and Services: "LAC is now working to set up a new digitization structure that will lead to a more comprehensive approach to online resources." Why shift resources when you don’t have a plan?

Anonymous said...

PLAN?! What PLAN?!! Obviously going for a service cut without allowing for more self-service (like publishing online descriptions and ordering materials from home) meant that management doesn't know how to manage, customer service doesn't know how to service their clients and that PLANNING wasn't part of the process!!

Mike More said...

It is not uncommon for federal budges to be adjusted throughout the year and they are normally reviewed at three month intervals, i.e. 30 June.

Anonymous said...

Oh please, sure there are "adjustments" as in are we spending what we should have or how much did we overspend (burn) this quarter or how much is let for the next quarter but to say that what happened here was a mere "adjustment" is a joke. On this website we have the following assessment:

30% reduction
According to a post on the LAC web site, weekday full service hours will be 10 am to 4 pm, that's 30 hours a week. These are the hours during which LAC professional staff can be consulted and materials ordered. At present these services are provided from 8:30 am to 5 pm on weekdays, that's 42.5 hours a week. The reduction in service hours is nearly 30%.

23% reduction
Hours when pre-ordered and self-service materials can be examined are also being reduced. On weekdays the building will be opening at 8:30 am and closing at 8 pm. At present the weekday hours for much of this material is 8 am to 11 pm. The reduction in hours is 23%.

60% reduction
The cuts are even more drastic on weekends. The present availability of pre-ordered and self-service materials from 8 am to 11 pm is being reduced to noon to 6pm, a 60% reduction.

Now these are significant "adjustments" and are something that management must plan for and don't come out of the blue after the first 3 months of a fiscal year. If they do, then the LAC senior management has a lot more to account for...

Mike More said...

There is no doubt that LAC made a PR mistake in the way that they handled the reduction in hours. They may also have tried to "spin" the decision at the 19 Sep meeting (which I did not attend but rely on John's report). But, from the LAC staff that I have met over the years, I believe that they are trying to improve their service and deserve the benefit of the doubt. Anonymous may be more current than I in the internal financial dealings of the government but I don't believe that there is some secret agenda or conspiracy in the upper echelons of LAC.

My own experience with the extended hours, echoed by others, is that the reduction were not without merit. For several years, I used the LAC on Sunday mornings and rarely did I meet anyone there besides the commissionaires. I have also made periodic visits on Sunday afternoon, on my way to a meeting, and seen few people. The bulk of the visits are during the prime working hours

The problems with the reduction seem to suggest that the decision really was made quickly. There are a number of minor concerns that are being reviewed in order to make the system work better. Surely they would have worked some of the bugs out if this had been planned for a while.

I suspect that there are some staff at LAC who have not accepted the change in their clientèle, and some of these may be at senior levels with their hands on the purse strings. LAC must still serve a wide variety of clients but genealogists are now the largest group. The hobby has grown dramatically in the past few years, and may expand even further with CBC's forthcoming program. Only time will tell if LAC made the right decision with the hours and digitization.