I got roped into our Freedom of Information working group today. In principle, this is a great idea, in practice it will be a nightmare to implement. Briefly, what it means is that anyone, anywhere in the world, can request what information we have on any given subject. So far, so good.
The problem is that to do this, you need to know what files your organisation “possesses”. I put that in quotes because in our case, this doesn’t just mean the files we have, but those we inherited from the six former health authorities and before them, the regional health authority and district health authorities going way back, probably to 1974. In other words, a mountain of paper.
Someone is going to have to wade through all of this to work out what we should keep and what we shouldn’t. And it’s a big deal because if we mess up our chief executive could go to jail for two years. Sort of concentrates the mind!
As we were discussing this challenging opportunity (one has to remain positive) it suddenly occurred to me that this policy will have been drafted by civil servants in Whitehall. The one thing civil servants are good at is filing and I don’t mean that facetiously. Because of the 30 year rule, their records will eventually be made public.
To demonstrate how seriously they take filing, a friend of mine who became a civil servant was sent on a two-day course to teach him how to do it properly. And this was a senior communications manager, not a clerk or an admin person.
And once something enters a Whitehall file, it can never, ever be removed and its contents are meticulously catalogued.
Now what if the civil servant who drafted the policy believed that the world outside his window was just like the one they lived in? Don’t laugh – I’ve had dealings with ’em and they can have some odd notions about how the real world works.
I can hear the episode of Yes, Minister:
Jim Hacker: “But won’t this mean we’ll need another army of administrators to log all these files.”
Sir Humphrey: “Alas, no minister, would that it were so. It will simply mean that they will have to publish their existing catalogue of files. A minor inconvenience, but no more.”
As I said, worlds apart.