Information managers lose a decade to track down papers for public release

The timeframe for releasing archived records into the public domain has changed from 30 years to 20. To most people, changing a requirement from a very long time to a long time doesn’t sound that dramatic. But for the organisations charged with meeting that commitment, it’s a big step. Now a study reveals that one in three public sector bodies doesn’t even realise the law has changed. The National Archives, whose vast vaults take delivery of all those documents, appears to have quite a challenge on its hands.

The reason behind the rule is the Government’s commitment to greater transparency. Among the many tens of thousands of documents transferred to The National Archives you will find the minutes of Cabinet meetings and other internal government files, notes and studies. This is not just the minutiae of democracy in action; it’s the evidence of what decisions were made about the big political and global issues of the day, who made them and how; and what information was collected, about who and why.

Under the 30-year rule, 2014 revealed to us the government debates around the 1984 Miners’ strike or the IRA bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Under the 20 year rule this year would also have revealed what went on behind closed doors in 1994, the year that the Channel Tunnel opened for business and the IRA declared a cease-fire.

All this depends on public sector bodies tracking down the relevant papers, preparing them for release and submitting them to the National Archives. Organisations that fail to meet this requirement could find themselves in breach of the Public Records Act, and at risk of a possible fine.

We spoke to 150 senior executives responsible for information management and digital transformation in a wide range of public sector bodies. A third (30 per cent) are unaware the rule even exists, and a further 36 per cent know what is required of them but have yet to do anything about it. This is despite the fact that the law came into force in January 2013, with a phased introduction over ten years. For those who are struggling to comply, this is mainly because they need more time (76 per cent), greater competence (64 per cent), additional resources (45 per cent) and information (39 per cent).

Effective information management is the key to meeting the new requirement. Just stacking up boxes of bulging Manila folders won’t be enough in a world of ever-growing information volumes and variety. The information that records and tracks the decisions made at times of political, economic, defence and cultural significance, by those we have chosen to represent us, needs to be filed somewhere it can be protected and found.

The public sector organisations we spoke to are grappling with the practical implementation of this. They want support to meet the demands of the new law, and they need that support on several fronts. For many, the 30-to-20 year transition has exposed a gap in information and expertise when it comes to tracking down and preparing dormant documents for submission. This is where the use of trusted external partners can have a real impact, adding resources and smoothing the process. For example, since the act came into force, we have worked with multiple government departments to enable them to assess and review in excess of two million files, which allows them to be compliant with the new legislative requirements in a cost effective way.

At the same time, public sector organisations need to lay the foundations for the future. The shorter time frames for submission are here to stay. This requires watertight information management processes for the information created today. Inactive files need to be effectively indexed and securely stored, preferably offsite, for rapid search and retrieval when required. And the story doesn’t end when the documents, discs and tapes roll up outside The National Archives.

The Archives hold 11 million government and legal documents, and the number continues to grow. It retains for posterity just five per cent of all the documents received. The judgement of which documents to keep is made in collaboration with the submitting entity. Public sector organisations need a deep understanding of what information they hold. Then they will be best placed to ensure that what is kept today, is what history will need tomorrow.

Phil Greenwood, Director at Iron Mountain