Elizabeth Shepherd: FOI and records management, the local government experience

What has been the experience of local authorities and what is the relationship between records management and Freedom of Information. Looked at small and large public authorities and adopted a qualitative approach using mainly interviews. Many individuals had dual or more responsibilities. Held 22 interviews in 19 different organisations. In user terms targetted people or organisations who had made multiple requests as thought these would have wider experience to comment on. Eleven of these were held.

Conclusions: local authorities struggled to make comprehensive and embedded changes to information maangement policies and practice. This was especially problematic for digital records. Many established data protection systems but few looked at impact on records management. This was in contrast to FOI. Very few studies on the user experience.  Journalists have made most use of the act, but pressure groups and individuals are now making more use of the act.

Only five authorities out of the 19 studied had a records manager before the act and only another seven had one after the passing of the act. Sometimes records management given to temporary staff and had a low priority. In many there was no actual records manager, some had records management as part of their job and some had simply adopted it as a role. Sometimes records management and compliance in different directorates and different teams. FOI was most often located in legal department but records management often seen as an ICT function. Led to FOI being seen purely as a compliance issue and not linked to records management.

Not seen as a systems issue or solved by buying IT alone. In many cases business efficiencies and down-sizing led to focus on records management that has previously not been there. The e-government agenda was also a driver and led to authorities buying into EDRMS and looking more closely at FOI.

Do records management and FOI work better if addressed together? There were advantages cited, but also where there was one team and/or one person there were capacity issues. Ideal solution seemed to be to sit records management in the same team but with different individuals responsible for each.

All noted problems with digital records management. Retention and disposal schedules were not fit for purpose and the multiplicity of copies and shared drives was a problem in complying with the schedule. Many could not get a grip on electronic records at all and this was seen as a technical issue rather than a records management one.

Most felt they had been able to cope with the volume of FOI requests and felt that better systems would not necessarily help find the answers. Several mentioned knowledge management as an issue – harder to find individuals to respond than actually find the information itself. Common issues were that the relevant person was on leave, had left or had simply not responded.

Several respondents felt they had not responded fully or may even have supplied inaccurate information. Some also noted inconsistencies in responses to the same question. Quality of information likely to become a bigger issue in the future. The number and complexity of requests has been increasing – requestors have been getting “more savvy” in framing their requests, challenging information provided and asking questions in different ways.

Interviewees hard pressed to give specifics on how things had actually changed. Records management has a higher priority but defining benefits has not been easy. Important to engage in a dialogue with the requestor. Users often happy with simple information although they themselves are becoming more sophisticated. Records management and FOI is best served by being in the same directorate so the links can be made and users better served.

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One response to “Elizabeth Shepherd: FOI and records management, the local government experience

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