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UK public sector unready for Freedom of Information Act

Select committee is not impressed

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Public bodies are unready for the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), according to an MPs report from the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) Select Committee. With less than a month to go before the act becomes law, compliance among the 100,000 or so public sector organisations affected by the act is patchy at best.

The report concludes that the DCA has failed to provide leadership and guidance, particularly on implementing technology to ensure compliance.

The FoIA comes fully into force on 1 January 2005. It establishes a general right of access to information. It obliges all public bodies, including government departments, councils, police, health and prison services, to disclose information within 20 working days of a request, providing there is no specific exemption. Paper-based files, notes, documents and records are included in the disclosure requirements.

A government survey revealed that only 17 per cent of UK public bodies are currently compliant, and have the software, and measures in place to welcome the arrival of the FOIA.

Alan Beith, chairman of the DCA select committee, said: "The DCA has had four years to prepare for freedom of information but with less than a month to go it appears that some bodies may not be well enough prepared."

Nick Kalisperas, head of public sector campaigns at IT trade body Intellect, agrees: "This has been a slow burner of an issue. People have been aware of it as a long term project. I think it has slowly crept upon people"

"Some [Intellect] members have raised contract confidentiality as an issue. If the confidentiality of suppliers is not respected, it could have a big impact on how business is done with the government."

Ian Quanstrom, managing director of ZyLAB UK, argues that organisations worried they won't meet the deadline, need to look to out of the box technology solutions. ZyLAB has developed systems that are FoIA compliant for several public sector organisations including the Police IT Organisation and the University Hospital of Wales, and says its product can deal with the paper-based documentation:

"By definition, document imaging and paper filing software used in public sector environments must be able to digitally file and manage millions of pages of paper and electronic documents while offering high-quality search and retrieval features to a large number of users in multi-locations," Quanstrom said.

However, Kalisperas cautions that a technology-only approach will not suffice. "Getting the technology sorted is just the first step. IT is an aid in this case, not a panacea. Managers need to sit down with their teams and work out how the act will affect their organisation."

Beith concludes: "Every effort must be taken in these last few weeks to iron out any remaining hurdles. Freedom of Information is not an optional extra that public bodies can sign up to if they want to; it is a legal obligation that they must be ready for." ®

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