How do we stop Home Office files from going missing?

FOIMan considers what can be done to improve records management in government (and beyond).

recordsThe Home Office lost 114 files (well, actually 30,000, but let’s not go there). A couple of weeks ago I wrote about this in the context of a Home Affairs Select Committee hearing on this. This morning the Public Administration Select Committee heard from National Archives and Parliamentary Archives officials about records management and disposal across government.

As always, the hearing was somewhat dispiriting, with MPs veering wildly from giddy excitement at the thought that an archive holds 500 years of records (and perhaps moreso at the thought that they too will one day have their words of wisdom captured there) to being unreasonably rude to people trying their best to answer their badly construed questions. One day I’ll stop being surprised by their antics.

It led me to consider once again though – what is the answer?

Well, I can’t claim to be able to resolve all the problems of record keeping with one blog post, but here are some suggestions that would help prevent problems in the future. I do think fundamental change is necessary.

Senior management support. PASC was told that senior management support was crucial for improved records management – but most chief executives and other senior officers want little to do with records management – it is a menial task in their view. I was often told at the start of my career that good records management should be invisible. I always thought that was nonsense and I still do. Good records management requires active attention from everyone, and especially those at the top.

Records management must be properly resourced. As a records manager I was constantly told that we didn’t need “Rolls Royce (or gold-plated) records management” – in other words, the organisation concerned wanted “quick and dirty”. Think about the fact that most IT departments have significant budgets and staffing, can purchase solutions costing thousands on a whim (it often seems), and often their head is a senior director. All those systems will be used to create records, yet if there even is a records manager, they will be fairly junior, and probably alone, and in my experience will have no budget (the only budget I ever had was £2000 to buy boxes). How on earth do they change the culture of their organisation from that position? They don’t is the answer.

Records management needs to be built in. IT companies provide lots of solutions to public bodies and companies, but rarely do those solutions help organisations to retain the records they need and comply with organisational policies. Your organisation probably has a retention schedule specifying how long records should be kept for. But I bet if you asked your HR department whether their IT system deleted records in line with that schedule, they would look sheepish. They’re routinely breaching the Data Protection Act because IT companies don’t provide functionality that everyone needs if they’re going to comply. Similarly, we routinely use email to discuss our work, and important decisions are taken via that medium. Yet any attempt to select and preserve email remains cumbersome and a barrier to compliance with corporate policies. Why? Because of the way that the email system is built.

Improving the quality of staff leading on records management. (Sorry fellow records managers). I’m not convinced that records managers – even those who have actually completed a qualification – are suitably prepared for the realities of the workplace. Certainly I wasn’t. Perhaps it is less important for someone to be a professional records manager (whatever that means now) than to be someone who can get things done, to be a leader. And for that person to have sufficient support and credibility within the organisation.

A statutory basis for records management. Bernard Jenkin asked if destroying records inappropriately was an offence. It isn’t (unless someone has asked for it under FOI, but nobody has ever been prosecuted under that provision). I’m not sure a change in the law in that way would have the effect he hopes for, but certainly if we want records management to improve, the law needs to change. This has happened in Scotland, and whilst I don’t think it is a panacea, I do think it could help. And, as was also highlighted in the PASC hearing, it would be helpful to have record-keeping laws that extend beyond central government. At the moment, the Public Records Act, passed in 1958, only covers Whitehall and Quangos. Records management needs teeth if it is to be effective.

Realistic expectations. Information is being created constantly. It is impossible to keep on top of all of it. Organisations need to identify what is important and focus their attention on those areas. Good – no excellent – records management is possible but only if resources are sufficient and are focussed on key processes. Too many records management professionals consider themselves failures because their organisation doesn’t look like the picture painted in the international standard on records management (ISO15489 – the value of which I am personally sceptical of).

Society’s attitudes need to change. No, really. “Records management is everyone’s job” is a mantra of records managers the world over, but it really is – and not just at work. It’s not just there that we’re being bombarded with information, we get it at home too. It’s time that records management professionals stopped talking amongst themselves about the challenges and started talking to everyone else. The problems we’ve got in the Home Office and in our workplaces start at home. My tongue isn’t entirely in my cheek when I say that we need something akin to Who do you think you are? for records management. How full is your dresser drawer? perhaps.

What do you think?

3 comments

  1. June Walker says:

    How do you get the necessary senior management buy-in? Anyone who works in records management is very much aware that good/excellent records management is down to everyone doing their bit. But no one wants to do that because they think filing a piece of paper or a document in the right place is too menial a job for someone as important as they are. It is only when something goes disastrously wrong that senior management get involved and even then it is only to point a finger and demand an explanation as to what went wrong. We need to invest time in showing organisations that good records keeping is the cornerstone of a good organisation enabling people to retrieve information easily and efficiently.

    • FOIMan says:

      With difficulty June! That’s why I think there needs to be a more fundamental change – attitudes generally need to change so that it’s difficult for senior managers NOT to take it seriously.

  2. Paul,
    Thanks for this blog. It is a timely and important reminder about records management. Too often people forget that everyting within a company involves records either directly or indirectly. Even if the decision is not written down, the effect, putting the plan into action, creates records.

    To some extent there is a cultural issue where people think that filing and records management is a junior officer’s task. For others, it is lack of awareness of how filing systems and information can improve their efficiency and effectiveness. I explored that idea a couple of years ago with the tension between bigger buckets, just keep everything, and better search engines. Neither approach helps with records management because they almost suggest the absence of it.

    What interests me about this episode, and the PASC hearing, is the way that records management is interconnected with accountability. Yet, we rarely hear people, outside of a court room, asking for records and purusing accountability through the records. In some ways, organisations do not want too much records management because it would mean greater accountability and they may beleive that such accountability might limit their effectiveness.

    You are correct that better records management is needed yet few seem to have cracked it. Perhaps there is a research project to find out how organisations can succeed to the extent that they lack effective or reliable records management systems.