Freedom of information: The future starts here

Meeting the Freedom Of Information Act’s 2005 deadline is just one of several technological challenges currently facing police authorities. Mat Hanrahan assesses what FOIA can teach us about the IT needs of the police service.

Aug 12, 2004
By Mat Hanrahan

Meeting the Freedom Of Information Act’s 2005 deadline is just one of several technological challenges currently facing police authorities. Mat Hanrahan assesses what FOIA can teach us about the IT needs of the police service.

When the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act becomes fully active in January 2005, police authorities will inherit a new statutory duty that may force them to re-assess how they use IT. On the positive side, the Act will serve to increase the transparency of policing, strengthening links with the community and providing officers and staff with greater insight into how their force is run. On the negative, it could add to the administrative burden of policing and provide media and political groups with an effective new means of bringing political pressure onto the service.

Police authorities are already used to dealing with requests for information from the general public, courtesy of the Data Protection Act. Unlike data protection requests, however, FOI requests are not limited to the name of an individual.

They can be used to access minutes of meetings, background reports and internal correspondence that may have influenced policing decisions past and present. They can also be used to find out how often senior executives travel abroad on business and whether they have a preference for first class travel and five star hotels.

The first days of the Act are widely predicted to see a run of FOI requests from researchers, academics and the media for police documents relating to famous tragedies, civil disorders or political protests. Such access is currently restricted to public inquiries or a 30-year wait, courtesy of the Public Records Act.

The FOIA contains a number of exemptions that allow for certain types of information to be withheld, but the organisation will have to argue the case for these. The most important aspect is that all FOI requests must be served within 20 working days; failure to meet the deadline could lead to disciplinary action from the Information Commissioner. Given much of the information requested may be scattered across computer systems and filing cabinets held in different buildings, there is a concern that FOI requests might drain support resources and impact on operational policing. Police authorities are therefore preparing to invest in request management systems to handle the demand.

Request or information case management systems use workflow and process-focused technology to automate parts of the request-serving procedure. The requests are analysed, broken down into constituent parts and fed into the system, where they are then passed over to the data owners and legal specialists.

A management console provides visibility across all of an organisation’s FOI requests, allowing FOI officers to spot which requests require additional resources in order to meet the 20 day deadline, or request extra help in the event of a flood of requests. Workflow software should collect enough information about each request for the officer to set a pricing plan appropriate to the level of effort required to meet each request. Good systems will recognise duplicate requests or parts of requests and re-use them accordingly.

Police authorities are expected to fund these systems out of their existing local budget, which is already stretched by commitments to delivering case and custody applications, outstanding National Strategy for Police Information Systems (NSPIS) and Information Systems Strategy for the Police Service (ISS4PS) initiatives, command and control costs, and an as-yet unspecified proportion of the IMPACT proposals recommended in the wake of the Bichard Inquiry.

ACPO has taken its usual initiative with the National FOI project, which aims to save each authority from having to re-invent the FOI wheel. Chief Inspector Paul Brooks of Hampshire Constabulary has headed a team of six to produce the ACPO National FOI Statement of Requirement (SOR), a generic list of requirements for police information case management systems. The SOR has been distributed

Related News

Select Vacancies

Sergeants and Detective Sergeants

Metropolitan Police Service

Police Sergeant Transferee

Merseyside Police

Police Officer Transferee

Merseyside Police

Copyright © 2024 Police Professional