Features: November 26th, 2004

How will Public Bodies Cope With Freedom of Information ?

By Ian Quanstrom

In recent months some of the most respected observers and commentators of the IT industry have quite rightly thrown doubt on the ability of public sector institutions to prepare for compliance with the Freedom of Information Act in time for the 1st of January 2005 deadline.

With this day fast approaching it is still difficult to predict what the demand for information will be and, although it is a challenge to foresee the full extent of the impact of this change, most organisations will be telling staff to assume that all the documents and e-mails they write will be disclosable.

Preparing to disclose

If one was to observe in great detail the public sector’s approach to the FOIA, and compliance with it, it would become evident that although certain strategies have been put in place by the majority of these bodies, they have in many cases failed to incorporate a procedure for the recording of paper-based documents into their considerations.

Recent research suggests that only 17% of local authorities have set aside a percentage of their budget to implement electronic systems designed to help with the dawn of the FOIA. Many will be adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach to the ramifications of non-compliance with the Act, so that organisational decision making can be applied to any problems as and when they arise. A lack of resources, or a reluctance to invest in technology that will ultimately fail to satisfy the FOIA requirements, is typically at the root of such attitudes.

What is certain is that organisations have and will be seeking expert insight as to how they can pre-empt or minimise the negative effects of failing to meet their new obligations. They will be looking for informative and practical advice to guide them in the measures that can be taken to avoid a crisis in January next year.

With every corner of the public sector being impacted, from health to local government authorities in England and Wales, some organisations are bound to be panicking about the approaching cut-off date.

Other pressures, such as the terms of compliance with the Data Protection Act and various eGovernment agendas, are adding another dimension to the confusion with budgets being placed under increasing strain and possible contradictions beginning to emerge. Practical considerations concerning technical, operational and systems change and the associated administrative costs involved are building up into what must be a phenomenal challenge.

Managing information

In January, internal procedures concerning information management will suddenly become a top priority for organisations in a way that they never have been before, with the frailties of the previous systems becoming all too obvious. A lack of centralised document oversight, standardised naming conventions and logical file structures will be exposed as this latest legislation ushers in a new era in how we record, handle and disseminate information.

Undoubtedly the installation of archive, search and retrieval systems that are FOIA compliant could make a tremendous difference to an organisation’s capacity to handle the potential demands that will be brought about by this legislation when it comes into full effect in the New Year. This includes the everyday documentation that feeds data-driven transactions and forms the paper trail that can provide key evidence in any ongoing investigation or transaction adjudication. When this information is lost, complete data records simply cannot exist.

To ensure their continuity plans are complete, public sector institutions would be well advised to invest in the relevant paper scanning and archiving applications. The technology does not have to stretch budgets and can provide a targeted solution for the new challenges that lie ahead in the light of the FOIA coming into force.

Widespread adoption of this technology, the right software for each organisation’s individual needs, would represent a much overdue sea-change in attitudes to methods of storing and retrieving information. It would help to speed up and improve local services on a day-to-day operational level, independently of the challenges posed by FOIA compliance.

We must also not forget that the commercial world will also be affected by the Act. It is a potentially huge issue for anyone sending information to a public sector institution as it may be accessed by the public at large and by anyone in the world, whether that is a lobby group, the press, a campaigner or even a competitor.

The challenge of moving to transparency

The Act’s real challenge is changing the mindset of those who run and monitor the day-to-day activities of public sector organisations from one of non-disclosure to total transparency as the masses track what civil servants, council officials and others are doing on their behalf.

In the long term, as decision-making processes are made clearer to the public, the goal of developing more accountable and responsive public sector services will be realised. The time and expense of ensuring compliance, through the installation of the right systems for the task, will be worth the final result.

In many ways the hurdle that must be overcome is a psychological one, as government institutions begins to shift their dependence on physical documents to advanced software, gradually building their faith in this brave new world of electronic document management.

Ian Quanstrom is Managing Director of ZyLAB UK.