On the Record

When the Freedom of Information Act comes into force next year, IT directors must ensure their data management systems are up to...

When the Freedom of Information Act comes into force next year, IT directors must ensure their data management systems are up to the job. Danny Bradbury reports.

Traditionally, local authorities have had a reputation for inefficiency when delivering data to the public. Whether that reputation is deserved or not, it will have to change next year when the Freedom of Information Act 2000 comes into effect in January - and IT departments must be prepared. Under the act, members of the public will be able to request any information a local authority maintains on them and expect to receive it within 20 days.

Unlike the existing Data Protection Act, the Freedom of Information Act applies to non-personal information, meaning that the two acts will make a large percentage of government records available to the public. To compound this pressure on local authorities, Environmental Information Regulations will govern the provision of information relating to the environment.

It is theoretically possible simply to drag paper-based records out of a file when requests from the public start to arrive next year, but no-one knows how many requests will be made and the cost of retrieving paper-based records will be dramatic - if it can be done within the Freedom of Information Act's 20-day limit at all.

The Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations coincide with the move towards e-government in which local authorities and central departments are required to comply with the e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-Gif) next year.

Some authorities are clubbing together to cope with the data management requirements. Richard Stay, executive member for information and systems at Bedfordshire County Council, who is using mySAP to help deliver electronic government services, says that five local authorities in the region have formed Citizone, an initiative designed to pull together data systems and provide a single call centre-based point of access. As part of the initiative, the partners have created the Property Gazetteer project, a standard reference format for every piece of property in the county. As this nears completion, the partners will introduce people into the data format, enabling them to integrate their data records more effectively.

However, the organisation still has a long way to go. "We are not Freedom of Information-compliant today," Stay says. When asked what would happen if someone requested information, he says, "At the moment we wouldn't have a clue. It would take hours of research to answer that single question."

He adds that there could be many other agencies or bodies that hold information on behalf of the council. "I am not convinced that we will be there on the day and that has legal implications for us."

A September 2003 survey on readiness for the Freedom of Information Act by the Office of the Information Commissioner revealed that local authorities are largely failing to create policy statements on records management - even though the Freedom of Information Act included a code of practice statement on records management in November 2002 and it was anticipated that they would be doing so again this year.

Document imaging, document management and knowledge management systems will go some way towards solving the problem, but Andrea Simmons, an independent consultant working with public sector group Socitm, warns local authorities not to put all their trust in this type of technology. Document management systems do not always impose proper audit management and retention controls as electronic records management systems can, she says.

Intelligent use of metadata is one way to help manage records effectively. Richard Pinder, sales and marketing director for electronic search tools provider APR Smartlogik, says that the government has published a local government category list for councils, which is part of the e-Gif and e-government metadata standard.

In an ideal world, this would enable local authorities to tag their data for management and retrieval. According to Pinder, the problem is that the local government category list fails to take into account local language conventions and idiosyncrasies. For example, perhaps a coastal local authority will need more detailed categories for ports.

"There is also the manual undertaking of the people who are tagging up this content," he says. "When that is included with records and document management, your web content is just the tip of the iceberg." Perhaps Stay's take on this is unsurprising, "I have a healthy disregard for what most of central government says," he admits.

As authorities consider deploying audit-capable records management software, data and process modelling will feature high on the agenda. Graham Kelly, corporate process analysis manager at Halton Borough Council, used Popkin's Systems Architect software to help unravel its workflow and to simplify the underlying data before layering other applications on top.

"We have found databases that are old and difficult to interrogate, so we reverse-engineered those to find what information is being fed in," says Kelly. He can then query the owners of the databases to find out whether they are being used out of tradition rather than for any meaningful reason. "We are finding that the information is duplicated in other areas so you can integrate with those," he says.

Such analyses must take into account ad hoc data residing in desktop spreadsheets, says Giffin Lorimer, marketing manager at CDE Solutions. Only when proper data retention and integration mechanisms have been put in place at a central level and made easily available will it be possible to persuade employees to stop using the desktop as a primary storage mechanism, he adds.

Many local authorities have a long way to go before their data management and retention policies are in place, let alone the systems necessary to support those policies. With eight months to go until D-Day, the Freedom of InformationAct and other government requirements are beginning to make the Y2K bug look like a weekend maintenance job.

Read more on IT legislation and regulation