The public sector's FOI Act challenge
Must cultivate culture of openness
The "deadline" for implementation of the UK Freedom of Information Act is January 2005. What does this mean? The public sector, widely defined to include educational organisations, Government agencies, "Quangos" and other extended tentacles of Government have to be in a position to respond to prescribed requests for information on a timely basis.
One of the major operational issues is to ensure that the public enterprise has the capabilities to store, manage and extract information pertaining to the requests from its data and records. Technology may enhance these capabilities but it is contended that effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Act will only be satisfied by cultural changes in the public sector. Historically, the sector has responded slowly to cultural change, especially where it is perceived to erode the power and influence of the sector.
Some major changes in cultural attitude have been identified as critical to the effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. They include consistency in handling and presentation of information across the sector, a move from a paper based to an electronic environment for handling, plus management of information - namely, the requirement to move to a culture of openness from one of secrecy:
Consistency in handling of information
Many records and much information in the public sector are stored centrally but without establishment of any standards for creation, monitoring, maintenance and disposal of records. Such activities, unless they involved matters of national security, have been regarded as of comparatively low priority. In a paper-based environment there was a reluctance to store information for central access, in case the files were lost. The onset of the technology environment, where information may be accessed by departments and divisions, did nothing to encourage the sharing of information, in fact rather the opposite; it created a proliferation of amended files and records; especially if stored and duplicated at a local level. A number of initiatives have been introduced by the Government to deliver consistency and standards in retention and management of records. Rigorous adoption and adherence to these will bring credible delivery and operation of the Freedom of Information Act.
Electronic handling and management
This is an important major step in the change to "e-government", the move towards delivery of services to the public electronically. Many do not trust or even accept the delivery of services electronically. They require signed and written certification of delivery and even of destruction of records. Capabilities for tracking and auditing such electronic events are an important components in conversion of such sceptics within the public sector as well as the prospective consumes of the service. Less controversially, perhaps, policies and procedures for development, location, standardisation, plus the management and maintenance of electronic records and information are critical to cultural acceptance. These efforts have to be conducted in close partnership with IT management and major projects to ensure that minimal duplication of effort and resources occur.
A culture of openness
The Freedom of Information Act postulates that all information held by public sector bodies is made available to those who request it. While there are , of course, exemptions to this, it is diametrically opposed to the current situation, where information is made available exceptionally, though legislation in the 1980's and 1990's as well as codes of practice have made information, primarily at a local authority level, more accessible. Effective management of records will provide those who have to service requests for information with fewer operational and logistical reasons, if not philosophical reasons, for preserving a culture of secrecy, much of which has been encouraged by the lack of good records management.