Concern grows over IT's ability to meet Freedom of Information Act data requests

With less than 10 weeks to go before the deadline for the Act, some IT departments are realising that neither they nor their...

With less than 10 weeks to go before the deadline for the Act, some IT departments are realising that neither they nor their organisations are ready

The Freedom of Information Act, which comes into force on 1 of January 2005, will have profound implications for the IT departments of every public sector body in the UK.

By then all UK public sector organisations must supply information requested by the public within 20 working days, regardless of how or where they store their data.

For many public sector organisations, meeting this requirement is going to mean investing in IT systems capable of managing documents and processing requests from the public.

But with less than 10 weeks to go, there are growing concerns that many organisations, and local authorities in particular, will be unprepared when information requests start to arrive.

In a survey of 100 public sector IT executives, largely drawn from local government, 78% of respondents said they believe their organisations will not be able to fully comply with the Act by the 1 January deadline.

With the deadline for compliance looming, 60% claimed their senior managers still did not understand the implications of the Act. The same number said their organisations are not committed to putting in IT systems to meet compliance.

"There is going to be large-scale non-compliance on 1 January," said Joan Fennelly, a business consultant at change management consultancy Partners for Change which commissioned the survey.

Last week, Peter Chalk, vice-chairman of the Local Government Association, admitted to MPs that local authorities could struggle to meet the 20-day deadline.

Giving evidence to the constitutional affairs committee, he said many councils were delaying investments in document management systems until they knew the volume of the requests they will have to deal with.

"There will be a lot of manual searching to start with, but as we see the number of enquiries, we will be putting in more electronic methods. Where there is manual retrieval, I think we will face some problems. In the early days, the 20 days may be hard to achieve," said Chalk.

He urged the government to take a flexible approach to the 20-day deadline, and said that some flexibility would be better than local authorities simply finding they do not have the resources to deal with the Act on 1 January.

Lydia Pollard, e-government strategic adviser for the Improvement and Development Agency, which promotes local government best practice, agreed that some local authorities might be left struggling.

"If there are complex enquiries which require information from several different sources, I think they may struggle to meet the 20 days," she said.

The failure for local authorities to be prepared is a reflection of the competing and conflicting demands from government over the past four years, said Socitm Consulting, the consulting arm of local authority IT directors' group the Society of IT Management.

Andrea Simmons, principal consultant at Socitm, said in practice local authorities have been too busy complying with rafts of other government initiatives to think about the Freedom of Information Act.

"It is mainly because of the lack of joined-up government policy. The constant drive from central government to issue initiatives in a completely un-coordinated way means that money is spent in silos. So when you need to know where everything is across a local authority, it becomes very difficult," she said.

The problem has been exacerbated by the unwillingness of central government to provide local authorities with extra funding to prepare for the Freedom of Information Act, Socitm Consulting said.

Even today, many of the government's requirements for freedom of information have yet to be resolved. There is still no clear message, for instance, on the fees local authorities will be able to charge for information requests.

"It has an impact on our ability to say that if we invest this amount of money in a technology system we can make some money by charging it back," said Simmons.

As a result of conflicting priorities, freedom of information has never figured high on the to-do list of local authority chief executives, said Fennelly.

"I have visited customers the length and breadth of the country, both large and small. Responsibility for freedom of information is being devolved down the organisation, typically three to five layers down from the top," she said. Although they may have strong management ability, "They do not necessarily have the skills or the clout to make things happen," Simmons added.

Technical solutions range from using Adobe Acrobat to manage requests to full SAP systems.

Some local authorities have been able to bolt on freedom of information functions to document management systems and customer relationship management systems that have already been installed for other purposes.

But for many IT departments, freedom of information could be a no-win situation. More than half the IT executives surveyed believed that the IT department would be left to carry the can if organisations fail to meet the deadline, even if the reason for non-compliance was outside their control.

What complying with the Act will mean for councils   

The Freedom of Information Act comes into force on 1 January 2005.  It requires public sector bodies, including central government departments, local government, the NHS, schools and the police to respond to information requests from the public. 

The Act, though much watered down from the government's pre-election promises, essentially aims to change the mindset of government from the presumption that information should be kept secret to making it public. 

Government departments have had four years to prepare for the Act. 

Under the Act, public bodies are placed under a duty to create publication schemes which provide the public with a summary of the information they publish and how to obtain it. 

The Act also means that any information requested from an authority must be disclosed within 20 days unless it falls under one of 25 exemptions.  Unlike similar laws elsewhere in the world, the UK legislation is retrospective, providing the public with access to historical as well as contemporary documents. 

Written material, photographs, plans, video and sound recordings fall under the Act. 

The Act, which comes under the remit of the Department of Constitutional Affairs, will be policed by the Information Commissioner. 

Public bodies that fail to comply with legitimate freedom of information requests could ultimately be found in contempt of court - a criminal charge that could lead to fines or potential imprisonment for council executives.

Information commissioner will give no leeway

The Office of the Information Commissioner has warned public authorities it will give them no leeway if they fail to comply with the Freedom of Information Act by 1 January 2005.

Richard Thomas said that government bodies have had four years to prepare for the Act and not being ready would not be an acceptable excuse for failing to answer the public's requests.

"I say to every public authority you have got a choice: you can embrace this legislation, make the best of it and really make sure it delivers your agenda of being more open; or you can be dragged kicking and screaming, fight every case and come across as a resistant, closed and secretive organisation," he told a committee of MPs last week.

Under the Act, public bodies are required to disclose information requested by the public within 20 days unless it falls into one of 25 exemptions.

Those failing to comply could find themselves in contempt of court - a criminal offence.

The agency issued warnings to local authorities in March when it became clear that many of them were not yet fully aware of their responsibilities under the Act.

Since then, there have been awareness-raising exercises and the watchdog said it was now confident the issue was at the top of most local authority's agendas.

"In terms of how ready they are, we are not going to know that until 1 January when we see whether we get complaints or not," said Dawn Monaghan, senior policy officer.

Members of the public who are dissatisfied with the way their requests have been handled have the right to appeal the decision with local authorities.

If they are still dissatisfied they can escalate the complaint to the information commissioner and then to the Information Tribunal.

Newham adopts the 80/20 method

Integrating freedom of information procedures with core local authority systems will not only ensure compliance with the Act but also improve a council’s customer relations and complaints processes, said Richard Steel, head of IT at Newham Council in East London.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, councils have to respond to requests within 20 days. Considering this could involve anything from a planning request from the 1940s to an e-mail sent in the last month, this will be a challenge, Steel said.

Newham’s approach has been to build on document management systems already used in the council’s customer relationship management system. It has also used systems that meet the needs of the Data Protection Act, comply with the Caldicott requirements for health and social care records governance and complaints management systems.

Working with document management supplier Anite, the council is building keyword tagging and categorisation into its documents.

E-mail was a particular challenge, Steel said. "Any e-mail can carry information that could need to be revealed under the Act. E-mail is not very structured so we are bringing it into records management so that every e-mail has an attachment that will be stored separately."

Effective categorisation is also essential to meet the needs of the new legislation, Steel said. "If you get an enquiry that says, ‘can you tell me all of the issues discussed as part of a planning application in 1998?’ then normally that is an enormous amount of work, but if you file documents with keywords and catalogue them, it should be a lot simpler."

Newham council took an 80/20 approach to digitising council records. This means it plans to create electronic records that should answer about four out of five requests for information.

"We have planning records going back to 1948, so we will digitise from 1979 onwards. This should deal with 80% of requests electronically. We will digitise older documents as they are requested and review the process as we go along," said Steel.

The council has so far invested about £300,000 in systems associated with the Act. However, this does not include staff training, an essential element of the programme, said Steel.

Newham has a PC-based training system along with a face-to-face introductory session. About 1,000 staff should be trained across a spread of departments by the beginning of next year. By the end of 2005 all staff should have received training.

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