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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Richard Blake: New Records Management Code of Practice

Following the code, clear that people did not know how to assess themselves re compliance. The current self-assessment tool supplemented compliance workbook. More intuitive and supplements the previous questionnaire. It also auto-generates a risk assessment that can be displayed in a number of forms. This has been field-tested by a number of local authorities.

Richard explained how the current tool works and displays the information. Idea was to work through each module in turn and has around 180 questions. Currently eight modules but will be nine on the new one. Covers information government and risk management under module 1 – organisational arrangements. Module 5 stresses the importance of maintenance in the digital domain especially for long retention periods. Module 7 on disposal covers what many call retention. TNA tried to avoid confusion over use of the word retention. Module 8 very important as covers collaborative working. Intended to apply to contractors and did not originally take account of partnership working.

Concern that guide must be useable and it will reference existing resources. Diagram of Knowledge and Information Professional Skills Framework. Also important to ensure that there are appropriate training courses and qualifications to support the development of these skills.

Implementation guides currently available on TNA website. Richard also offered support and advice to people with queries about the code or compliance and implementation.

Susan Healy: New Records Management Code of Practice

The code was issued on 16 July 2009. Go to: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk > services to professionals > records management

Scene setting: Code is a practical statement of good practive that should not be new to practitioners. It is NOT a code of practice on information management. Nor is it new or ground-breaking. The code is a recommendation and is not mandatory. Information Commissioner does not have enforcement powers.

Good practice includes governance and culture – senior management buy-in. Policy and procedures – how you translate the intentions into practice. Personal responsibility for all relating to record-keeping – this is a vital element. Useable systems – these will facilitate good record-keeping and can be used and understood. Good processes underpin the systems. All these element together make up good records management practice.

Nine sections of the code:

Organisational arrangements to support records management: recognising different world in which we work and includes risk management. Governance framework defining roles and responsibilities. Procedures to help people. identify business systems and recognising how these impact on record-keeping. Tools to do the job.

Records management policy: importnat to have, to be endorsed by senior maangement and known about. A mandate to act in a certain way and to connect to related policies such as Data Protection and Information Security. Should also be available to the public.

Keep records needed for business, regulatory, legal and accountability: not just managing records we have but about ensuring records needed are created and kept.

Systems enabling storage and retrieval: important to ensure that the records can be kept either physically or technologically.

Know what is held and where and keep it useable: Especially keeping is useable in terms of ability to read a digital record.

Secure storage and controlled access: with due regard to sensitivity and security when soring and moving records.

Disposal Arrangements: deals mainly with business purposes rather than archival ones. Don’t keep what you don’t need. Implementing disposal and documenting it. Does not say how detailed it should be but there is a discussion of risk.

Cover records from collaborative working and out-sourcing: identifying need to consider how you work with other bodies and records implications.

Monitoring and reporting compliance and effectiveness: not prescriptive but need to know how successful your record-keeping is. How successful are you being?

Natalie Ceeney: Looking to the future

Jenny Hon Sec: Just heard Natalie’s presentation on Sustaining the Future of Archives in the Electronic Age. I am always struck when I hear Natalie by what a good speaker she is – both a prepared speech and off-the-cuff and willing to talk to people. I promise I’m not just saying that hoping for a job. For one thing I’d never be able to afford to live in Kew!

Anyway, on to the content. Natalie discussed the changes that have taken place in the past year. From the positive developments on the public consultation on the archives to the impact of the credit crunch. She recapped on some of the issues we are all familiar with, but doesn’t hurt to restate them. Google has become so much part of our lives but is only 10 years old. Users expect information to be available instantly and fully. Despite the fact that Freedom of Information has only been in place for five years, many people assume they have always had the right to information.

The challenges of the digital age are also increasing. The multiplicity of blogs, wikis, twitter feeds, not to mention Facebook, Bebo and Friends Reunited all need to be preserved permanently in some way – both for their evidential value and historical importance. Does the technology even exist to do this? Anyone still using floppy disks? Digtial obselescence is also an issue and things move very fast. TNA has 700 staff and a £55m budget and they struggle to meet these challenges.

Natalie identified the challenges of the sector as: Lack of clear leadership, disparate and fragmented sector with many organisations, Lack of career progression and inequalities of funding. She applauded the current merger discussions between the Society of Archivists, the National Council on Archives and the Association of Chief Archivists in Local Government and stressed that TNA supported this development. The fragmentation could be a problem but to some cextent was the nature of the archives sector with public and private bodies. Career progression could also be difficult for many and the sector is predominantly white and middle class. The need to have a qualification and fund university study set up immediate barriers.

The report of the Archives Task Force was compelling and important but failed to work because it was not goverment policy. It was owned by the sector but not the policy makers. The new Archives Strategy was intended to be enabling and not prescriptive and had the support of government departments. The recommendation for Fewer, Bigger and Better services had been widely misinterpreted: this did not mean closing archive services, but developing partnerships and economies of scale. Some services could be centralised but others needed the local knowledge in the community.

Money is always an issue and we have moved from asking for more funding towards simply mitigating cuts. The public sector is facing its toughest time for 30 years and we all need to ensure that archives are on the radar. In difficult times we need to be proactive and radical, to ensure we are thought of at the start of an agenda and not at the end and to be a constant and necessary presence. The TNA are keen to support this but we need a clear vision, to work together, to showcase best practice and the lobby upwards.

Keynote Speaker Randall Jimerson

Jenny Hon Sec: This was a really interesting discussion of professional and personal ethics and the impact on archival collections and access. His talk was on access, accountability and social justice and he opened by mentioning the controversy surrounding the release of the Lockerbie bomber and the decision taken to publish correspondence relating to the decision-making process.

Professor Jimerson also gave us a new view of the archive as a temple of objects to be worshipped, a prison with guards, or a restaurant with exciting menus. The other scenario he discussed was a selection of journalists asked to find out what archives were all about. They all visit different types of repository and come up with completely different answers: a place to ensure the rights of citizens are upheld, a place to preserve the collective memory, a place of learning materials for the public. None of these – they only serve the organisation they belong to. Or do they belong to everyone and create a more cohesive society?

The importance of the decisions we make when we appraise records was also discussed – we decide what the future will know and what will be forgotten. Nelson Mandela had also noted the importance of archives in redressing the balance and ensuring that memories of forgotten sections of the population. He said, the youth need to know where we have come from.

Professor Jimerson argued that archivists cannot and should not be neutral collectors and gatekeepers. The archival process is intrinsically political and archivists cannot stand aside as neutral and dispassionate : to do so is an active statement benefiting the  oppressors and not the victims. Archives need to be for the people and by the people with a commitment to democratic values to stand against misuse of power.

Keynote Speaker Andrew Motion

Jenny Hon Sec: I was all prepared to give Sir Andrew a hard time, having read his ARC article where he seemed to be re-stating the usual tired old line that archivists need to be less insular and more innovative. So it’s nothing to do with the comparatively miniscule amounts of funding available then? It’s just that in our tweedy academic way, it’s never occurred to us to promote our resources.

He won me over though with the poetry archive online. If you’ve never looked at this, go and look now! It’s fantastic – I don’t have the URL to hand but I imagine it can be easily googled. He did discuss the image problems of poets – they could write poetry but usually read it badly – the focus was on the printed word rather than the spoken. This meant that the “acoustic” beauty of spoken poetry was lost. He also spoke of the fascination of hearing the poet read his or her own work. Similarly archivists are not trusted to interpret the material directly to users – some interpreter is apparently needed to act as a link. Sir Andrew also spoke about the help that the Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA) Council could give and the need to advocate for archives and archivists.

Until Tuesday I had never actually been moved to tears in a conference session (bored to tears on occasion, but we won’t discuss that now). A recording of Charles Causley (Cornish) reading his poem Eden Rock was a genuinely arresting moment. He died two weeks after the recording was made – as well as making the poem especially poignant, this fact also highlighted the need to ensure that a record survived. I won’t try to explain the poem – go and have a listen and see what you think.

This was one of the most interesting and moving presentations I’ve ever heard.

Copyright: What concerns you? What would you ask Tim Padfield?

Tim Padfield, a widely recognised expert in the field of copyright is speaking at the conference next Wednesday. Delegates will have an opportunity to ask him about various points of copyright law but also address issues that concern archivists coping with access to and dissemination of material in digital environments. If you were able to ask Tim a question regarding copyright and archives, what would it be? Post your questions as comments and hopefully Tim will be able to answer some of them!