On the record

April 29, 2005

Steve Bailey assesses how institutions have been affected by the Freedom of Information Act

After three months of living with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, it seems as though most further and higher education institutions are breathing a collective, but cautious, sigh of relief. Although far from being a damp squib, the early indications are that the Act does not represent the disruptive tidal wave that many had feared in the lead-up to the November 2005 deadline for full implementation.

Anecdotal evidence gathered by the Joint Information Systems Committee suggests that institutions are receiving an average of three to four freedom of information requests a month - compared with about ten times that number at most local authorities and even more within central government departments. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the initial media focus on national causes célèbres such as the Government’s legal advice on the Iraq War and the immediate use of the Act by disgruntled residents with long-held grudges over local services.

Although the numbers involved may be relatively low, the evidence suggests that universities and colleges would be unwise to ignore the Act or to believe that compliance with it can simply be assumed.

The three to four requests a month categorised as being “freedom of information requests” are those that fall outside the norm, usually because they ask for information that would not generally be made available due to its content or its volume. Initial findings indicate that, because of their nature, about half these requests take more than a week to answer and may involve the input of several members of staff to help locate, assess, redact and prepare the information for release.
With this amount of effort being required, a handful of requests can soon represent a significant drain on resources - and, of course, these are early days. Test cases and legal challenges will undoubtedly continue to raise awareness of new access rights, and already some institutions are reporting an increase in people mistakenly seeking personal information held about them through freedom of information channels rather than under the existing data protection regime. Clearly, the basic message regarding the public’s “right to know” is filtering through.

In the months leading up to January 1, the focus for many institutions was, understandably, the means by which these requests would be received, logged and acted on - usually through the implementation of new policy frameworks, procedures and staff training. Most universities and colleges refrained from establishing new technical solutions, such as request tracking and management systems, until they got a sense of the volume and nature of the requests they were likely to receive. Given the picture that is emerging during these first few months, this may prove a wise decision. It is not the volume of requests that is the most pressing issue but their complexity and the time it takes to process them.

The impact of the Act is therefore rapidly becoming the latest - but by no means the only - reason why many institutions are paying serious attention to the way in which they manage their internal records and information. Five years ago, few institutions had their own records manager - a qualified member of staff responsible for the effective management of records created or received by the institution during its day-to-day activity. The past few years have witnessed a marked change that has led to so dramatic a rise in the recruitment of such staff that demand is beginning to exceed supply.

The relationship between the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act and a surge of interest in records management is not coincidental. Indeed, it is a link that the Government has made overtly from the start, as the foreword to the Lord Chancellor’s Code of Practice on the Management of Records makes clear, with its declaration that “any freedom of information legislation is only as good as the quality of the records to which it provides access”.

An effective records management programme ensures that the decisions made
and actions taken in an institution are documented in a controlled and auditable manner. Given the Act’s retrospective remit, records management also provides a rigorous framework for determining how long information should be retained to meet all legal, regulatory and operational requirements and when it is safe for it to be discarded.

Of course, for many the idea of destroying information, particularly electronic information, seems anachronistic. The Google generation believes that that organisations can keep everything. Why take the time and effort to decide what can be deleted when electronic storage is cheap and search engines are improving? For the answer, one need only turn to any of the recent high-profile cases in the corporate world where the content of a long-forgotten email or overlooked document has caused companies to collapse and left reputations in tatters.

In recent years, Jisc has recognised and encouraged the growth of records management as a strategic priority for institutions. The challenges posed by the Freedom of Information Act have formed the focal point of much of this work to date and continue to drive this activity. But Jisc is also aware of the wider role that records management should play as an integral element of a host of information-based initiatives of relevance to further and higher education. These range from the creation of a lifelong learner record to the development of institutional repositories and the preservation of digital materials.

Although many records managers will have been appointed primarily to prepare for the Freedom of Information Act, it seems likely that meeting these specific requirements will represent only part of the challenges they will face in the years to come.

Steve Bailey is record and information manager at Jisc.

For more information: Joint Information Systems Committee, www.jisc.ac.uk

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