FOIMan reviews the government’s response to Sir Alex Allan’s review of government record-keeping and information management.
“Good records management is essential for good government”, said Sir Alex Allan in his report to the Cabinet Secretary on the management of digital records in December 2015 (though dated August 2015 at the bottom of the report itself). It wasn’t particularly surprising that he found that the state of records management was not good:
“almost all departments have a mass of digital data stored on shared drives that is poorly organised and indexed.”
He didn’t comment on what that said about the quality of government.
The Cabinet Office – now responsible for information management across government – has published its response this week in a report entitled Better Information for Better Government. For a start, the fact that it has taken the best part of 18 months to respond to a fairly straightforward analysis of the issues with information management within government gives a clue to the single most important reason why records are in a mess: information management is not a priority – for civil servants or their political masters.
The problems that Sir Alex identified – lack of high-level buy-in, failure to comply with record-keeping procedures, a vast legacy of poorly organised information – persist, and the new report doesn’t really offer much in terms of a way forward. It repeats Sir Alex’s analysis of record-keeping, providing a very useful summary of how the problem developed. It also agrees with Sir Alex’s conclusion that technology is the answer – though adds little to our knowledge of how technology will do this. A table lists the technologies that are most likely to be of assistance, but no conclusions are reached as to what should be done. Data analytics or eDiscovery tools are highlighted as being a potentially useful solution, before the report points out that their expense and the need for specialist users might lead Departments not to employ them.
There’s an emphasis in the report on Departments doing their own thing. It’s not hard to imagine those leading the project being fobbed off by Departments wary of Cabinet Office interference, and perhaps weary of (mostly failed) attempts to address poor records management over the years.
The report does recognise the most significant impediment to improved information management: people. There is talk of “creating the expectation of regular information management”. This is to be done by making it easier to save records by improving the technology used, but also by using “nudge” techniques:
“Departments might also consider deploying behavioural science techniques to encourage civil servants to perform information management tasks more regularly and effectively.”
The overwhelming feeling I had when reading this report was deja vu. We’ve heard many times before that records management is poor in government (and, to be fair, in most organisations outside government). We’ve also heard that technology and culture change are the answers. Reading this report I didn’t get the impression that addressing this problem is a priority, nor that leaders in government would be pressing for that to change. Without prioritisation and leadership, I’m afraid we’ll be reading another report like this in a decade’s time, and the decade after that, and…
Government digital records and archives review by Sir Alex Allan, Cabinet Office, December 2015
Better Information for Better Government, Cabinet Office, January 2017