An unpopular answer

FOI Man argues that there’s an easy answer to improving information and records management. The problem is that nobody likes it.

Jimmy Savile appears to have got away with, well, not quite murder, but rather a lot of very serious crimes in his lifetime. This morning BBC Radio 4’s Today programme looked at the failure of police forces around the country to recognise what was going on, despite many of them receiving complaints during his lifetime. Drusilla Sharpling of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) stated that forces have differing standards for recording information on the police national database. The problem, she argued, was one of information management.

This is but the latest example illustrating how fundamental information management is to the provision of just about every service in the country. And also how until something goes wrong (and usually within a few weeks after something goes wrong), it’s perfectly acceptable to put it to the bottom of the pecking order. We see plenty of evidence of personal data breaches that receive the attention of the Information Commissioner, most of which come down to poor information management. Last year London Metropolitan University lost its “trusted” status in relation to international students, partly because it failed to keep attendance records up-to-date.

We’re all inclined to leave the filing on the backburner. It’s a chore to us. Even I tend to find lots of jobs that need doing to prevent me spending time on records management. Recently I ran a workshop and the most senior manager present complained that email and shared drives were a problem as they weren’t being managed. So I asked him if he was going to set up a programme to be monitored by his management team and encourage his staff to spend time filing and deleting documents. He shrugged and said they don’t have the resources for that. And we moved on. That’s what we always do. We move on.

As a result, things don’t improve. FOI requests get refused on cost grounds or take forever to answer. Data breaches continue to happen. Children get abused and the abusers get away with it because a police force somewhere doesn’t employ enough people to keep records up-to-date. (And no doubt those police forces are under political pressure to cut “back office staff” – but that’s a whole different blog post).

I first got involved with FOI because I saw it as the answer to my prayers. At the time I was stuck in a regularly flooding basement in a local authority managing to the best of my ability a file store – a big room with lots of boxing on shelves. Some of the records at some point had been put in a location under the town hall steps. When I went to see them, I had to wear a mask because of the mould spores on the old ledgers that had been allowed to become damp (actually, sodden). Records management wasn’t sexy, but worse than that, the council didn’t HAVE to do it. There were all sorts of legal requirements on the council, and those were the things that got prioritised. So a piece of legislation that introduced a Code of Practice for managing records was music to my ears. The Lord Chancellor, no less, was calling for improved records management. Colleagues would have to listen to me. Bosses would have to provide resources. Beyond the wellington boots they provided when the basement flooded.

Well, sort of. Here we are 12 years later. Lots of public authorities appointed records managers. But that was it. Unless everyone in the authority spends time managing the information they deal with, and the technology and other infrastructure is put in place, all you’ve really got is…lots more records managers in basements, usually now with lots of other responsibilities that mean they have no time to work on records management. There’s plenty of evidence that actual improvements have been fairly limited in many, probably most public authorities.

So what’s the answer? Well, firstly, we could all try to remember that managing the information and records we work with is part of the job, not something that will wait until a quiet moment that never comes. But if that fails? I’m beginning to wonder if more legislation is the answer. There is precedent.

In Scotland, an abuse scandal in children’s homes led to the Scottish Government introducing The Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011. Under this Act, public authorities are obliged to prepare and implement a records management plan. The plan itself has to be approved by the Keeper of the Records of Scotland. In England and Wales, The National Archives has stringent rules already that apply to central Government and also inspect “places of deposit” – local Record Offices that are authorised to keep national public records relating to their local area.

But by and large most public authorities are left to their own devices. They can adopt technology without worrying about management of the information that the technology creates. They can treat records management as a luxury to be given up in tough times. They can leave their staff to their own devices, however important it might be to have a record of their work. Maybe it is time to look at the way we prioritise records and information management at a national level. Because whatever we’re doing at the moment isn’t quite working.

With thanks to Pete Wadley of the National Records of Scotland for information about The Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011.

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