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Reengineering Freedom of Information Enquiry Handling

by host on 14 July 2016 08:00

Interesting recent news from BBC Devon that FoI enquiries had cost 10 Devon Councils over £8m since 2008 at an average cost of £293 each.   The efficiency of enquiry handling (not just responding within 20 days) and the associated cost is, or should be, a concern for all public sector organisations.  The sector is operating under colossal financial constraints and every penny diverted away from key services is a matter of concern.  And the numbers of FoI enquiries continue to increase year on year.

To focus on local government, the cost of responding to FoI enquiries for some large authorities is many hundreds of thousand of pounds a year and, in some cases, within touching distance of £1m per annum.  From our own research, we also know that a surprisingly large number of councils profess not to collect the relevant data - at least not in a form that lends itself to analysis - and therefore have no idea of the costs they are incurring.

The way in which councils typically set up to respond to FoI enquiries is cumbersome and inherently inefficient; severely hamstrung by the many limitations of traditional digital records management systems.  

Varying according to size, councils will have a small number of FoI administrative officers at their corporate centres who are responsible for recording the requests and allocating responsibility for responding to either individual or multiple departments.  Those FoI requests will then be passed to either a Departmental Director or the relevant Assistant Director/Head of Service who, in turn will allocate them to their Section Heads who then pass them to subordinates for research and compilation of a response.  On the return journey, each response will then be vetted and/or amended by the Section Head, followed in turn by the AD/HoS and/or Director and passed back to the corporate centre.  This is not a caricature.  I have worked at a senior level for councils who employ this approach or close variants of it.  

The process is hardly streamlined and becomes clunkier still when trying to deal with multi-dimensional FoI requests (which a significant proportion are), as responses to them require input from two or more departments each with their own separate server/data repositories.  The 20 day statutory response time can and does become no time at all.    

So, FoI enquiry handling is a business process ripe for reengineering, with significant business efficiencies and operational savings to be made.  But how?

Suppose you had an extraordinarily  fast and sophisticated conceptual search engine underpinning an integrated software suite that sat across the top of a council's IT infrastructure and was wholly unfazed by how many different silos or servers were in operation?  Suppose you could just cut and paste an FoI question in its entirety into that search engine which would then forensically analyse all of your organisation's many millions of electronically stored documents by their actual meaning (not merely metadata, keywords or filename etc which are demonstrably inferior approaches by comparison), reading and then ranking every single document according to its conceptual closeness to the question with formidable accuracy - and all in less than the time that it took you to read this sentence?  Of course, once you had done that, you could then drill further by using metadata or keyword searching to reach the precise documents you needed.   Suppose you were not over reliant, as is all too often the case, on individual officers' knowledge - assuming they were not on holiday at the time. sick or had left the organisation (it happens)?  Suppose council officers had more time to concentrate on their actual jobs?

It would be good wouldn't it.  Well, all of that and more is now possible for the first time.  It's called the DataCube and its revolutionary capabilities were developed and fully proven within a major UK local authority.  

Intelligent technology for smart organisations.

Blog by Rod Lyons, Director, Apperception.

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