Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Six of the Best

Readers of SQA’s blogs may recall our earlier blog Ouch in which we reported on the nearest an archives office had come to being rapped by the Information Commissioner.

In a more recent decision notice, the Commissioner turned his attention to the records management service operated for Canterbury City Council by Kent County Council’s staff at Canterbury Cathedral Archives. The enquiries made by the caseworker and the outcomes make fascinating reading as to the procedures other local government modern records services can expect to undergo in due course. It doesn’t make pleasant reading and the Commissioner expresses specific concerns about deletion of emails and other computer records and inconsistency of approach.

Not a world heritage site for electronic records

The complainant had asked for information relating to Oast House Media Ltd or Stevenson Design.

The caseworker began by asking What is the public authority’s records management and retention policy? and If there is no relevant records management policy (for instance there is no policy at all or the policy was introduced after the alleged date of destruction of the record), can the public authority describe the way in which it has handled comparable records of a similar age?

Most intriguingly, the Commissioner found as factual The complainant has copies of correspondence and documents from the public authority that the public authority states it does not hold. He went on to say the authority had not conformed to best practice in deleting emails but two other comments are of interest and no doubt apply to a good many record offices offering modern records functions.

The public authority has some records management problems in that it
has discovered further information relating to the complainant’s companies
on a number of occasions…...

…..and more interestingly

Several searches of the Council’s records revealed more of the requested information on each occasion, despite the existence of a records management policy and disposal schedules. The Commissioner is aware that the Council does not have a corporate electronic records management system and must therefore rely on other methods. He has also been advised of various initiatives underway at the Council to improve its records management. Nevertheless, he believes that the Council would benefit from obtaining further advice and guidance from the
Records Management Advisory Service at The National Archives (see
contact details below). The Commissioner would hope that such advice
will improve the Council’s handling of future requests for information under
the Act.

It would seem Canterbury City Council is typical of many local authorities and other public bodies in not having adopted modern records management or at least to its full potential, including provision for electronic document records management (EDRM).

We asked Ellison Millinocket, SQA’s technical spokesman to offer some comments on the Canterbury fiasco.

Canterbury is a curious authority to have been hauled over the coals. Unlike many district councils, they have a modern records management system in place, operated by KCC staff but it centres on manual modern records and even this has been shown to be deficient. They appear to have no adequate provision for EDRM at all. With the city council’s relationships to KCC and the University of Kent at Canterbury, one would have thought they are ideally positioned to implement EDRM. An outstanding example of compliance is Gloucestershire County Council’s MIDAS system.

Benedict Crumplethorne, SQA’s principal spokesman, drew our attention to the minutes of the Commons Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs in which the chairman asked three representatives from the National Archives Do you think you should be sent in, like the Flying Squad, to have a look where the authority cannot produce a documented record or has destroyed the document?

This seems highly relevant to the Canterbury case. Let us just hope the idea is incorporated into the deferred national archives legislation!

Further reading

Commons Select Committee minutes

The Guardian

TNA FoI update

Canterbury Decision Notice

Canterbury City Council’s Publication Scheme

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