Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Cabinet Office: is it cricket?

There has been much irritation on Twitter with news articles such as that in the Telegraph, which somehow seem to imply that deletion of records is against the FOI Act.

Of course, it isn't. The nearest thing is section 77 FOIA, where deletion of information after a request has been received in order to avoid having to disclose the information is the big no-no.

FOIMan has already given an account of the tension between good records management and FOI.

I am interested in expanding on my thoughts based on a debate that @tim2040 and I were having on Twitter. Tim, absolutely correctly, is maintaining that such news stories, with their air of conspiracy and lack of understanding of FOIA are harmful.
Where we disagree is that I think that such news stories, while being factually wrong, jingoistic, and misguided are helping shine a light on the practices of the Cabinet Office when it comes to FOI.
The real pity of it is that articles like this by the excellent @foimonkey, which are accurate and fair do not make headlines, whereas dramatic articles like  that on the BBC are read by millions. 
Ministers can easily protect themselves from embarrassment by deleting from their email inbox anything that might be subject to a future FOI request, ex-insiders have told BBC News.
What a silly thing to say - this is an argument for never deleting anything at all, as anything COULD become subject to a future FOI request.  

There does need to be balance - good records management means that information should be filed sensibly so that it can be easily accessed and used - and part of this is the deletion of information and records that are not needed. The 5th DP principle tells us that personal data should not be kept longer than necessary, which also points to having good records management.

The section 46 Code of Practice on RM says in the foreward, para (IV):

Freedom of information legislation is only as good as the quality of the records and other information to which it provides access. Access rights are of limited value if information cannot be found when requested or, when found, cannot be relied upon as authoritative. Good records and information management benefits those requesting information because it provides some assurance that the information provided will be complete and reliable. 
Note the word 'complete'. This, of course, does not mean that you keep everything - that is silly and would make RM impossible. The Cabinet Office puts the onus on its staff to know what to to save. That is right - RM is everyone's job and no records manager can read everything and make these decisions. My problem is that I doubt that the most important decision making body in government has staff who are doing this. And all without supervision or oversight - although I am happy to be shown that they are. Of course, in other organisations, this does not happen effectively either. But the Cabinet Office is supposed to lead the way in these things - it is supposed to be exemplary. I am not going to moan about a parish council when the I can sense a rotting smell from the top.  

Some records managers will say that this is an effective policy at managing a huge amount of information and it may well be - but I struggle to believe that whoever signed this off did not also think that it would enable the Cabinet Office to hold less data and therefore be able to be less transparent. I would put money on this serving a dual purpose.

So, given the Cabinet Office's lamentable record on FOI, I sense, along with other people, that this is not about it being a world leader in records management.
@igwales has it right when he responding to @foiman asking if this policy was good RM or FOI avoidance -

I have known other organisations that have internal instance messenger systems that simply do not retain a record of the conversation once the window has been closed. They are designed not to keep records.

Gone are the days of everything being minuted - and that is right - but I have been surprised to attend meetings in some organisations where things were not minuted explicitly in order not to leave a record (and when I emailed a summary to my boss for his information, I was ticked off, with his shaking his head at me in sorrow). I don't work there anymore.

And what are the consequences for other public authorities? I have worked for several organisations where I know that the policies are weak, that they are not acted on and no one cares (or has time to care). If people read misguided and inaccurate stories and then start writing to public sector organisations and asking questions about how they keep records, how they ensure good RM and ensure that the organisations leaves a good account of how it made decisions, then I cannot see that any of my colleagues in the FOI or DP or RM worlds are harmed by this. While it might not be fun at the time, in the long term, most practitioners I know really care about information and this may be what public authorities need to be hassled about to ensure that their policies and practices are good.
Is the way the Cabinet Office's way of dealing with information illegal? Of course not.
Is it cricket? Not bloody likely.

No comments: