Monday, February 5, 2007

Work in Progress - "Information Flows"

Work in progress - ‘Information Flows – the real art of information management and freedom of information’

One of the purposes for this Blog is to allow me to reflect upon and share the work I have in progress – from almost completed articles to those articles or ideas that are still in the early stages of conception – after a chance meeting or the tangential spin off from someone’s comment.

The article closest to completion is a joint collaboration with Peter Sebina, ‘Information Flows – the real art of information management and freedom of information’ which is being prepared for the May edition of Archives and Manuscripts.

The article is an attempt to examine the interrelationship and interplay between FOI and records management. We apply a corporate governance model to government to address information asymmetries between state and citizens and argue that the capacity of FOI, coupled with good records management can be an agent of significant cultural change.

The genesis of the paper goes back to 1993. One of the first major papers I did was on the relationship between FOI and Records management written for the 10th Records Management Conference that was held in Hobart in 1993. One of my, if not my first major public presentation. The piece was a very rushed and limited report of a short survey conducted by my students and myself that looked at what was written about records management and FOI in the literature and what actually took place in the early months of implementation (Tasmania Jan-Aug 1993). My conclusion was that there was a relationship but it was not the cause and effect – FOI leads to better record keeping – that appeared in most of the literature. My analysis suggested that there were +ve and –ve impacts, strong and weak effects, and other developments (software, increasing professionalism etc) that had little direct linkage with FOI.

My thoughts turned to other areas and I never did come back and carry out a more major and comparative study (a point Peter Sebina critisied me for in his PhD thesis. In early 2003 I was invited to speak at the 23rd Records Management Conference. I expressed my concern about being booked so far in advance (my recordkeeping system didn’t extend 3 years into the future). 18 months out from the conference I provided a title and abstract. 15 months out from the conference I met Peter Sebina in London, through Gervase Hood at the UK Department of Constitutional Affairs and over a lovely lunch in a small café in Tufnell Park (on the Northern Line) we introduced each other to our respective expertise (Peter archives and records management , me FOI, Stiglitz etc). An archvist/academic from Botswana and a Tasmanian law academic exchanging information face-to-face in a low tech café.

Over the next 15 months Peter would send me drafts of his thesis and I would pass back suggestions and reflections on ideas generated while reading his drafts. Peter would then convert those reflections into more considered sections of his thesis and a kind of action research cycle continued.

When I came to prepare my conference paper I discovered that I was having great difficulty in distinguishing my ideas from work in Peter’s thesis or whether I had taken one of Peter’s insights and then further refined. At another meeting in London, June 2006 Peter suggested that we should collaborate on several articles. So the conference paper became a joint effort.

Currently the paper’s introduction reads

In this paper we put forward some ideas about trying to take access to information from where it currently is - a few painful, costly and hard fought steps from its strongly resisted implementation - towards where it should be in an information age and an age of information. The current state of play in Australia after 20+ years of experience is barely measurable. The comments in this paper are focused on the capacity of citizens to access non-personal affairs information on a routine and relatively unproblematic basis. If in other areas of the information revolution we had accepted the same minimal results as we have with FOI then the internet, laptop computers, I-pods and Blackberries would have all remained unbelievable elements of speculative science fiction.

We explore some of the key paradoxes and riddles of the information management and Freedom of Information relationship. Joseph Stiglitz’s ideas of information economics are applied to demonstrate why records management and FOI are not only compatible but essential partners in an information age. The way institutions and society manage the access to, and protection of, information is a critical catalyst in the creation of good governance and a deliberative democracy. Information managers can provide important insights for those concerned with increasing transparency and accountability. In an age of information it should be of little surprise to find that the rapid uptake of laws like FOI has been phenomenal. In the last decade the number of countries with some type of FOI legislation has increased from a small handful to over 70 countries. Yet this outbreak of transparency is bound to disappoint unless records management, FOI, privacy and archives are understood as an interplay between several different information systems. The direction, timing and quality of information flows becomes the key issue and the avoidance of stagnancy an important objective.

We need to develop better theories and consequently better tools of analysis so as to finally arrive at what our parliaments thought they were achieving with a stroke of the pen two decades ago. This critique is not meant to underplay the achievements of access legislation. Information on an hourly basis is entering the public domain via access requests lodged around the world. A recounting of successful cases can be an inspiring experience. Reading the first chapter of Alasdair Robert’s new book Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age is such an experience. Yet as the rest of the chapters in his book, and indeed the title, suggests those highlights are often more the exception than the rule. Especially for those wanting to use access to information regimes to engage on an informed basis in public policy debate, discussion, formulation, implementation and evaluation.

We conclude


This paper has only concentrated on one key facet of the complex and dynamic relationship between FOI and records management. We have suggested that the operating rationale of the corporate governance model can be applied to the public sector to address the problem identified by Stiglitz of significant information asymmetries between state and citizens. When coupled to a sound and dynamic records management system FOI has a significant cultural change capacity. We have approached public sector information management from a generally static perspective and usually with a frame of reference limited or isolated to a single perspective such as FOI, privacy, archives etc.

Our attention should be redirected to managing information flows. Whilst Chadwick’s 19 word mantra is simplistic it does provide us – whether as records managers, citizens, information custodians or an inquiring 4th estate – with a rough ready reckoner. Adapting the corporate sector model of governance to a public sector environment provides a citizen-centric framework that is focussed on information flows rather than the alternative of an ad hoc and patchwork government information environment that focuses on warehousing information.

The paper has now been accepted by Archives and Manuscripts and Peter is just finishing off some of the suggestions by the referees. Interestingly those review comments sparked a debate about whether the article was better suited for a readership outside of the Archives and Manuscripts audience. Precisely why I decided to follow Al Robert’s example and make the dissemination of my material more user friendly and accessible via my new web site and this blog.

Another example of this disciplinary/field restriction on the flow of information is the fairly slow impact of Stiglitz’s work on information asymmetry and FOI. Whilst Stiglitz’s work is widely available (through his books and his own website see and his work on information asymmetry and FOI went through several reiterations from 1998-2002 the most useful rendition is Chapter 2 in The Right to Tell: The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development published by the World Bank in 2002 (see

Hopefully over the next year or so Peter and I will be able to write a couple more articles teasing out these ideas and more fully exploring the FOI – Records Management relationship.

Peter and I would like to thank Peter Timmins, Alasdair Roberts, Paul Hubbard and Ron Fraser for feedback on earlier drafts and/or ideas that informed our thinking.

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