FOIMan explains why the ruling of the Supreme Court in relation to Prince Charles’ “black spider memos” is so significant – and why FOI campaigners should be cautious in their celebrations. On 1 January 2005, FOI came into force. Later that same year, the Guardian’s Rob
FOIMan writes for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal on the “ten things FOI requesters hate most” about the way public authorities handle their requests. Those of you working for public authorities – FOI Officers and others – work hard, I’m sure, to get FOI responses
FOIMan comments on the Budget. Well, one particular aspect with data protection implications anyway… George Osborne, I’m sure, pleased all of us who work for ourselves when he announced in the Budget that annual tax returns were being abolished. Unfortunately, it turns out he still
FOIMan comments on a revealing annotation to a request made via WhatDoTheyKnow.com. In my experience, one of the most common causes for a FOI response being delayed is one that many FOI Officers are reluctant to publicly acknowledge. It is that often colleagues are less than
FOIMan highlights some recent developments of interest.
Water utilities are not subject to FOI. However, they are apparently subject to the Environmental Information Regulations according to a new Upper Tribunal decision. The long and complex decision has been reproduced on the Panopticon blog.
In the perennial debate over its cost, Tim Turner has used FOI to demonstrate that one police force complaining about the expense of answering requests from the public spends over 6 times as much on public relations staffing as it does on FOI support.
On the Data Protection front, the Alzheimer’s Society has published a guide to Accessing and Sharing Information when acting on behalf of someone with dementia.
Training and other services
Over the last year I’ve been invited to deliver in-house training for a number of clients including local authorities, schools and universities. I’ve updated my Training page if you’d like to know more, and you can also download a leaflet about my services. Get in touch for a quote if you’re thinking about ways to improve your colleagues’ awareness of FOI, data protection, local government transparency or records management.
FOIMan highlights the difficulty of handling FOI requests at the height of industrial disputes.
Those responsible for managing FOI compliance are in a difficult position at the best of times. I’m sure they wouldn’t quote Stealers Wheel to describe their situation (“clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right”) but nonetheless they are stuck in the middle of two camps, each of which passionately feels it is right. On the one side there is the requester seeking transparency and accountability, for whom often any reticence to disclose is another example of establishment secrecy. On the other, there is the information holder, often more senior than the one responsible for compliance, who sees their job as being to protect the organisation from harm. They know the information and its context much better than the FOI Officer and the poor old FOI Officer therefore has to judge whether their reluctance to disclose is justified by the facts, or whether the information holder is being unnecessarily defensive. Things can be even more complicated if those responsible for answering the request are directly affected by the matter concerned.
Pity then those responsible for answering FOI requests at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). As correspondence disclosed by a member of the PCS union and published over the weekend by FOI Kid (no relation) shows, they are in a very tricky place at present. PCS are taking industrial action over a recent decision to award three senior officials large pay rises, whilst other staff have seen very limited pay increases, in line with the rest of the public sector. Union officials made FOI requests to their employer in order to understand the reasons behind the pay awards. Initially told that information was not held, the ICO appears to have changed its mind at internal review.
Dealing with requests in these circumstances is never easy, and any organisation can be forgiven for making mistakes under pressure. That even the regulator’s handling of such a case appears somewhat clunky demonstrates how difficult it can be when employee relations meet FOI.
FOIMan explains why he’s not afraid of the dark age.
In my last post I recounted how pioneers in the UK have contributed to the development of digital preservation solutions over the last 20 years. This was inspired by several news articles at the end of last week reporting on Google Vice-President Vint Cerf’s comments heralding a “digital dark age”. In this piece I want to give my personal reaction to this apocalyptic prediction.
As I indicated in my previous post, the issues raised by Cerf are not new. And indeed he isn’t the first to suggest the dire consequences of a lack of action.
But are such visions realistic? My personal view is that they’re not. Let’s consider what happened in the past.
We tend to assume that electronic formats are somehow more fragile than previous media. This isn’t in fact the case. As any archivist or conservator will tell you, failure to keep paper or parchment at the right levels of temperature and humidity can lead to it becoming unreadable. In one job early in my career I found records being stored in damp, dank conditions under the Town Hall steps. They were covered in mould and fungi – to all intents and purposes unreadable. Some of the records were less than 10 years old.
Just as servers can be hacked, intruders or employees with a grievance can access offices and pick up files they shouldn’t have seen. Careless employees can leave files on trains or even in evacuated premises. Fire or flood can destroy whole warehouses of physical records without the insurance of a backup to restore the files.
These risks have always existed. And until more enlightened times, even governments failed to keep their records in suitable storage. Just read Caroline Shenton’s excellent book about the fire that destroyed the Palace of Westminster if you want some illustrations of this.
And yet… Record Offices hold vast quantities of physical records – they complain of lack of space and have significant backlogs requiring cataloguing. Historians will always want more, but the fact is that despite the poor quality of storage in previous eras, the limited literacy of earlier generations, and in some cases the passing of many years, archivists hold vast volumes of evidence on our past.
The problem in our era is not a sparsity of information. It’s a glut of it. And with so much information – whatever format it is originally created in – it is inevitable that a huge proportion of it will survive. Indeed it is fear that information will live on indefinitely that feeds current debate over the right to be forgotten.
It will survive because it is popular – the more copies of a file that exist, the more likely it is that some will remain (take, for example the four copies of Magna Carta recently exhibited together in London). It will survive because people are interested in it. FOI will play its role – now copies of government documents will be found in many personal collections and on websites as well as stored by their creators. A proliferation of information – facilitated in the digital world – will guarantee that vast quantities of it remain accessible to future historians.
The real problem is not whether there will be information that will remain accessible, but which information should do so. As I’ve suggested, lots of it will live on purely through chance. But it is important that organisations (and individuals too) identify the records that have most value – especially long-term value – and take deliberate action to preserve them. This too will happen because there are commercial, governmental or sentimental reasons to retain them. In my last post I explained the need for pharmaceutical companies to retain digital records – so they took steps to ensure that those records would be preserved. Similarly the digital photographs that you look at the most – of your children, your significant experiences – will almost certainly survive because you will regularly look at them and if you have problems accessing them you will do something about it.
Digital records require specific techniques to ensure their preservation (as indeed do records printed on paper or written on parchment). That’s why the work of the pioneers I wrote about in my last post is so important. But in principle at least, preserving digital records is no different to preserving records created in other formats. It requires the organisation or individual to first identify what it needs to keep (a point made by the National Archives’ Chief Executive, Jeff James, on Saturday’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4). How it will keep it is a secondary and technical question, but one that will be answered if the information really does have value.
This is why, short of a nuclear holocaust (in which case I suspect we will have more pressing concerns should we survive), I don’t think a dark age is coming, digital or otherwise.
FOIMan highlights the important work of UK pioneers to preserve digital records for future generations.
Thank goodness for Vint Cerf. Cerf’s up because he has been speaking at a conference in the US about the dangers of a “forgotten century”. He is highlighting the problem of digital preservation which is an important one. And because he’s a “web pioneer” and a Google Vice-President, the media are listening to him.
If you were to read the BBC News website or the Guardian this weekend, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a problem that has just dawned on very clever people in the US. But the truth is that whilst it is welcome that this issue has finally attracted the attention of journalists, archivists and people in the IT industry have not only been aware of these issues for some time, but have also been putting forward solutions. Many of them are right here in the UK.
In a nutshell, the problem is twofold. One, the hardware that runs computer programs is regularly superseded. On my records management courses, I illustrate this by producing a 7″ floppy disk from the 1980s. The hardware that can read that disk only exists now in a handful of museums, but when I was at school, it was used there and in most offices.
Two, the software that is used to create the programs, to manage your email, to retain your photographs, to write letters – also changes all the time. Each time you get a message saying that a new version is available the chances of being able to open a document created in the original version are reduced. Software manufacturers are focussed on creating something that will do lots of new sexy things rather than something that will continue to open your dissertation from ten years ago.
20 years ago this was a problem in the pharmaceutical industry. Research increasingly depended upon technology that produced data which could not be recorded or preserved by traditional methods. This was a concern because regulatory approval for drugs required the experimental data to be available for long periods. And if you wanted to demonstrate that you had discovered a drug for valuable patent purposes then again you needed the records to prove it. A drug like Viagra, say, discovered by scientists in the UK working for Pfizer, is worth billions to the company. So the records proving its discovery are also worth billions.
Back then I was starting my career in records management, and one of the reasons for pursuing it was that at Pfizer I saw it at the cutting edge. Not only did my colleagues invite experts in the field like David Bearman to visit us to discuss the problems, but they were proposing solutions too. They developed, with the help of a UK company called Tessella, a system called the Central Electronic Archive, specifically to retain – and preserve – this important experimental data. The CEA has since been retired, but the work done in establishing it helped to ensure that its contents remained accessible and could be migrated to its successor systems.
This work started in the pharmaceutical industry but its benefits can now be felt in the public sector. My former boss, David Ryan, was headhunted from Pfizer to set up the National Archives’ Digital Preservation Unit. The Unit has produced useful tools such as PRONOM, a database that maps the compatibility of different versions of software so that organisations can work out how to open documents created in older versions of the software. It has also established a programme to extract digital data from central government departments. One example was a 3D reconstruction of a shipping disaster used at an inquest which otherwise could never have been captured and preserved. In establishing the technical infrastructure for these services, the National Archives has continued to rely on Tessella, who won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2011 for their work on this.
The Digital Preservation Unit’s next head, Adrian Brown, has subsequently gone on to establish a digital preservation programme in the UK Parliament, and is widely recognised as an expert in preserving digital formats. Adrian has recently written a handbook on digital preservation to help others looking to ensure their records will be available for decades to come.
There is still a long way to go here, and Vint Cerf is absolutely right to highlight the issue. But much good work has already been done around the world, including here in the UK where pioneers in industry and in the public sector have shown the way.
FOIMan brings you more of his articles from PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal.
During the course of 2014 I continued my association with PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal with a series of articles on various practical aspects of FOI. If you don’t subscribe to the Journal you can now read all of these pieces via the About FOIMan link above. You can read about records management, the importance of leadership to FOI in public bodies, and the status of the Codes of Practice amongst other subjects.
I’ll be continuing to write for the Journal this year, so please do consider subscribing, but if you choose not to, I will be reproducing the articles here.
Meanwhile, users of the Act especially should take a look at the revamped FOI Directory. Journalist Matt Burgess has made some improvements to this already essential site including helpful guidance and templates for those making requests.