Public bodies must act now on FOI rules

IT directors in the public sector need to tackle the huge legacy of paper and electronic records in their organisations now if...

IT directors in the public sector need to tackle the huge legacy of paper and electronic records in their organisations now if they are to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, which comes into force on 1 January 2005.

The Act means that public servants no longer "own" information but are its custodians, with a duty of care, so awareness and training are important elements in overcoming poor information management behaviour.

There are three steps that need to be taken before the Act comes into force. First, conduct an information audit so that you know what information is held, where it is and what format it is in. Then categorise information that needs to be retained and purge the rest.

Second, develop processes for handling requests under the Act. Begin with "dry run" simulations to find out how your organisation currently gathers information and tracks information requests. Can you do it within the 20-day time limit specified by the law? This exercise will help prioritise what records need to be digitised as it will reveal what material is likely to be commonly requested.

As few requests are likely to be headed "FOI Act enquiry", a public sector organisation will need to capture all information requests, effectively turning the mailroom into an FOI "in tray". The digitisation of post rooms boosts the efficiency of all processes that begin with or involve paper-based input.

The third stage is deciding what technology you need to support your information management and FOI processes. It is important to take an holistic approach as providing systems for departments independently will lead to future integration issues.

If all this sounds expensive, it is worth remembering that effective information management offers value beyond FOI compliance. It fosters greater collaboration between employees as well as more efficient information access and processing, which is central to the modernising government agenda, and critical to the relationship between public bodies and citizens.

Mike Stone is chief executive of BT openaccess

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