With just under three years to go before January 2005 when the filing cabinets and disks of a public services will be opened up to the public, an awareness programme has been launched to alert senior managers to what is involved. Last week Ministers attended a seminar on how the Freedom of Information Act will be implemented across 70,000 public bodies. This is being followed up by a series of roadshows to inform senior officials about the requirements for greater openness demanded by the Act and how they can prepare to meet them.A key message for the roadshows is that information will change in character from being an adjunct to the processes of the organization, into a resource that has to be managed so that the requirements of the Act can be met. The effect of this is that records must be reliable, can be found when needed and that they are properly destroyed or archived. The records management function will need to be recognised as a specific corporate programme within an authority. A designated member of staff of appropriate seniority will have lead responsibility for records management. Human resource policies and practices will need to address the need to recruit and retain good quality staff and all staff throughout the organization will need training.
The greatest challenge of the Freedom of Information Act will be the need to change to a culture of openness. Although there will be some restrictions on what information can be disclosed the presumption will be that the public will have access to all records. The roadshows will stress that moves towards a culture of openness need to start now to avoid a culture shock in January 2005.
Public services will be required to produce Publication Schemes setting out how they will respond to the requirements of the Act. Central departments will have to publish Schemes by November 2002, local government by February 2003, police by June 2003, health service by October 2003 and Schools and Universities by January 2004.