Setting Up A Publication Scheme – First Impressions
By Dave Thompson
Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.
Implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FoI) is a huge challenge for local, authorities. The challenge is softened to some extent by the two-stage implementation process. The deadline for stage 1 – development of publication schemes – is February 2003 with full implementation due a couple of years later in January 2005. The fact remains, however, that this is a completely new process for UK local authorities – and indeed for UK government generally – with little in the way of hard experience and tested guidance to fall back on.
Implementation of FoI raises a wide range of issues for local authorities. Inevitably many are to do with resources, commitment at senior management level and the extent to which authorities will strive to meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law. Previously neglected information management issues also surface and authorities will no longer be able to duck issues such as record management and disposal schedule. The increasing range of service delivered locally through partnerships such as Connexions and Crime and Disorder Partnerships raise further questions. To what extent, for example, does the authority own partnership information? What do other partners think about making the information available? Is there general agreement on what constitutes sensitive information? Can the partnership agreements themselves be published? Similar considerations will also apply to more traditional services – such as the Coroner’s Service and Registration Service – where local authorities have partial, but not total, responsibility.
The purpose of publication schemes is to enable enquiries to find out easily which information held by the authority is already published and therefore easily accessible. Having a publication scheme will enable an authority to off load all the FoI enquiries that can be dealt with simply by pointing the enquirer to the scheme. In deciding how much to publish authorities will need to strike a balance between reducing future workload in handling enquiries and the cost of preparing schemes for areas which will receive so few enquiries that it would not be cost-effective to consider publishing.
Schemes are to list of classes of information rather than giving details of all publications. For example ‘Plans and Strategies’ would be acceptable as a class, and there would be no need to detail each individual document falling within that class. Guidance from the Information Commissioner (IC) for drawing up ‘classes’ is exacting, and making this work in a typical local authority is arguably the most difficult aspect of drawing up a publication scheme.
Although central to the concept of the publication schemes, there is no hard and fast definition of a class. The key thing to note is that once an authority has described a particular class, it is obliged by law to publish all the information covered by that description, This requirement is, of course, intended to meet the whole point of FoI – to be much more open. The class description must make clear any exemptions that the authority wishes to impose.
Some classes might cover thousands of documents. An example of this would be a class such as ‘Council Meeting Agendas and Minutes’ – particularly if the council is confident it can deliver these retrospectively over a long time. Others may consist of a single document – this is very like to happen in information areas where the existing publication pattern is somewhat patchy, and there is no easy way to describe the overall position.
User-friendly and accurate
IC Guidance makes it clear that classes should be user-friendly. Any authority which has thought carefully about how it presents its information on a website will have already been through some of the necessary thought processes. But websites and publications are one thing, classes as defined by the Information Commissioner are something else. Stiff penalties will face local authorities that have not been sufficiently assiduous in drawing up the descriptions of its classes. The other clear priority is to get that bit right – so that in legal terms it is accurate. If the wording can be improved to make it user-friendly – all well and good. But if in doubt then precision of definition will rule the day.
While the accuracy and user-friendly requirements may seem – initially at least – at odds, further guidance from the IC makes it clear that the class covers both the ‘heading’ plus any definition necessary to make clear exactly what is covered. This seems to offer the possibility of user-friendly, but possibly rather ‘loose, class headings which can be tightened up as appropriate within the description.
Not every publication has to be accounted for
Perhaps the biggest lesson learnt to date is preparing publication scheme is that there is no absolute need to account for each and every publication. Reading the initial guidance it is easy to come away with the opposite impression – ie that we do have to address every publication whether in hard copy, a web page, a poster, a bookmark, or even a sign on a building. Devising user-friendly classes to account for all of these would be a nightmare, but it is now clear that it is very much up to the authority to decide which publications will be covered by the scheme. But there is a limit to this freedom and FoI is clear that schemes must at least cover ‘core’ authority material relating to finance, organizational structure and decision-making.
… and double accounting may be helpful
Including some key documents in more than one class can go a long way to making a scheme user friendly. For instance, it may be helpful to refer to an Education Plan both within the organization’s general policy framework as well as within information about the educational services provided by the authority.
Each local authority develops its own ways of interfacing with the public and, although there is much commonality, the details of service configuration, terminology, information handing procedures and publication policies vary enormously. This – along with the sheer complexity of local government, – is perhaps the reason for lack of any model scheme to help us. It will therefore be for each local authority to find the classes which most suit its existing publishing pattern.
The natural place to start is with an audit of all published information. How you do this and ensure that every nook and cranny is covered is one thing. What you do with the mass of returned information is something else. A complete audit will contain thousands of entries, and will require the involvement of 50 or so individuals who have the required local knowledge. While these are the best people to assign a class to their information, asking them to do so when no general classification schedule is available can only lead at best to inconsistency, and at worst to confusion and alienation.
It will be equally difficult for the central coordinator to suggest classes prior to seeing the audit return. Even after sight of these he or she may not be much wiser. My best advice would to go initially for a quick and dirty solution and then refine it through a process of iteration. Be up-front about the difficulties, and ask staff with local knowledge to give it their best shot, and not to worry unduly. Allow them to omit the class details altogether if necessary, then follow up with an equally quick and dirty exercise scanning and roughly pulling together information in what seems to be overall a logical pattern.
This will get you started. The next step is crucial – ensure considered and detailed consideration of the draft scheme by all those staff with local knowledge. Encourage lateral, thinking. Ask ‘what would a heading mean to an outsider?’ ‘have we really thought through all the implications?’; ‘do we really intend to/can we publish all the information covered by the class?’
Consistency in the scheme is vital, and it is doubtful that this will be achieved through a committee approach. The role of the project group will be to support a consistent approach, and – given the tight time frame – ensure through effective communication and local input that the authority’s publishing pattern as described in the scheme is a true picture of reality.
A final word on audits – it is not unknown when concentrating on the detail to take for granted – and thus omit – the one big project for which a unit is responsible (eg a web directory of community facilities).
Many members of the public, when thinking about local authority publications, will think primarily of the typical leaflet and publications commonly seen on display in public offices and reception areas. As far as publications schemes are concerned, these appear to be of marginal interest. While extremely valuable in providing a user-friendly introduction to a service, they are in reality just that – an introduction – while the full information details (required by the publication scheme) sit behind the scene in the guise of policies, procedure, manuals, guidelines etc. It is important to constantly bear in mind that the publication scheme is not – primarily – about accessing services.
The IC’s requirements are exacting and authorities have little choice but to devote their limited resources to ensuring they stick within the law, rather than going for Publication Schemes which are exciting and visionary. Examples of good practice will emerge as schemes are published and we will be able to look forward to the development of far more adventurous schemes that meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law.
Dave Thompson is the Corporate Information Manager with Leicestershire County Council and the Information Officer of the Society of Publication Information Networks (SPIN).