The Freedom of Information Act will come into full force next January, before many government agencies and other public sector authorities have implemented the technology to meet their legal obligations, experts have warned.
This is despite the fact that meeting the Act's requirement is among the top IT priorities of many public bodies.
The result is that some authorities may be unable to answer questions about information they possess within the statutory period of 20 days. Organisations that persistently fail to meet the Act's requirements could find themselves in contempt of court and face an unlimited fine.
Disclosures about the lack of preparedness of some public authorities came at the government UK IT Summit 2004 conference in London last month. When the audience was asked whether they would be ready for the Act's introduction there was general agreement that many would not.
The conference also heard that the Act will lead to public authorities having to establish what information they possess, whether it is on paper, in electronic files, document management systems or hard drives. They will then need to index it and make it searchable.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, told the conference that the Act places obligations on a broad range of organisations including quangos, agencies, local government, police, the NHS, the armed forces and Parliament.
The Freedom of Information Act applies to any written information, including e-mail and fax. And as the Act applies retrospectively, citizens can request information from 50 years in the past.
"There is a real challenge for public authorities to start behaving in accordance with the Act," said Frankel.
"The government is encouraging departments to act in accordance with the purpose of the Act, not strictly with the letter." By January 2005, public authorities will have had more than four years since the Act was passed to prepare for it, he added.
Rob Wirszycz, former director general of suppliers' organisation the Computing Services and Software Association [now Intellect], and managing partner of Progressive Partners, warned that confusion over the implications of the Act could result in a "significant backlog" of applications in January if there are lots of requests.