Public Sector: In the public eye

The Freedom of Information Act is about to toughen up the roles of public sector PROs.

Imagine the scene: phones ringing off the hook as the public and the media demand - and are granted - access to all written records at public authorities.

A logistical nightmare? This is the scene that will occur on 1 January 2005 when one of the greatest pieces of legislation to affect the public sector in many years, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), becomes fully operational. All public authorities are obliged to provide access to everything from internal memos and board meeting minutes to notes taken by press officers during interviews with journalists.

The legislation is intended to improve public access to information, and many public bodies have already begun the arduous process of compliance.

Retrospective PR

Yet while most public bodies - including the Department of Health, Primary Care Trusts, emergency services, schools, colleges and local councils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - are marshalling their resources towards compliance, some PR departments are assessing the long-term impact the FOIA is likely to create in terms of PR challenges.

Recorded information from the last 30 years will be made available to the public for the first time, creating a potential minefield of PR issues. Only nine months before the legislation comes into effect, there are glaring gaps in the public sector where the PR implications of the FOIA have not yet been considered.

PRWeek spoke to three local authorities - one in London, one in the Midlands and a third in the North - to find out how each comms department is preparing for the potential need to handle what could be labelled 'retrospective PR'.

Although each council has begun to transfer recorded information onto electronic storage facilities for future publication online, none has considered the potential problem of past events being revisited when the public and press gain access to old information for the first time. 'It does concern me that local authorities are not taking action in this way,' says Banc MD Andrew Baud, whose clients include Leeds City Council, Lincolnshire County Council and North Yorkshire County Council.

'Even if council PROs are confident the council doesn't have any dirty secrets during their careers, it may well be that an issue 20 or 30 years ago may crop up,' he says. Baud advises local authorities to run a risk analysis before the end of the year.

For some it will not be secret but well-known events that threaten to spark new enquiries. The likelihood that tragic or controversial events such as the 1981 Brixton riots or the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, in which 96 football fans lost their lives, will be re-examined is fairly high.

One key group that has anticipated the challenge is the police. Cambridgeshire Constabulary, the force that handled the Soham murder investigation, has been working with BT to assess its general readiness in terms of technology and data handling for the 1 January deadline.

Cambridgeshire Constabulary head of media and marketing Hywel Jarman cannot discuss the Soham case because of the Bichard Inquiry into child protection procedures at Humberside Police and Cambridgeshire Constabulary. However, he does say that most public authority PROs will need to consider the implications of the FOIA in relation to sensitive historical issues, and should plan how they will handle them.

'Most organisations will be able to predict notorious cases and issues that are likely to attract ongoing interest. It will be essential for those organisations and PR directors to ensure that all potential avenues of risk are closed down,' says Jarman.

Public interest

London's Metropolitan Police Service has already broached the subject in its planning for the Act. FOIA compliance project manager superintendent David Chinchen points out that given the nature of its work, the team is regularly engaged in cases that attract significant public interest, and has established an independent challenge group to advise it.

He adds that at this stage, all public sector PROs need to be wary of the fact that the FOIA is information rather than document-based and could cause some problems as a result. 'This means the Act does allow the use of summaries rather than the use of source documents,' Chinchen says.

'However, this is dependent on agreement with the applicant, who can express a preference for how they receive information.'

Like the police, the fire service is also a long way down the track in terms of compliance and has begun considering potential PR challenges created by the FOIA. For the last two years, the West Midlands Fire Service has been preparing with a data audit. The brigade's corporate relations manager, Sharon Sharpe, says the organisation traditionally receives requests for historical information and will expect a surge in demand on 1 January.

Lack of protection

Sharpe says that any requests will be handled 'with honesty and respect for public sympathies'. She adds: 'The only thing any public body cannot do is (use spin. They must) put their hands up and say, "yes, we accept our fault", if that's the case. The public value honesty and can spot spin a mile off.'

Sharpe advises that all communications departments in the public sector should begin the process of highlighting the implications of the legislation to all staff, whose actions - if recorded - will soon be open to public scrutiny on request.

This raises a further cause for concern created by the FOIA, as illustrated by the death of government weapons expert Dr David Kelly last year: the lack of protection offered to individuals in public service.

With greater openness comes the potential exposure of individuals to public scrutiny when an issue becomes a media story. Baud offers this stark warning: 'Public servants not used to public scrutiny will have their thoughts and actions recorded.'

Jarman also warns that all public sector media officers need to carefully consider their information management processes in light of the new legislation. 'I'll be thinking more carefully about what I do with noted information. That might be as draconian as thinking about how I make notes: Will they be as detailed? Will they have a potential detrimental impact on the organisation?'

The clock is ticking. While preparation for potential PR challenges may not be a statutory part of FOIA compliance, as of 1 January next year, unprecedented access to information will be a fact, and what it springs on public sector PROs could be quite unexpected.

CASE STUDY: A MAJOR PCT

East Elmbridge and Mid Surrey Primary Care Trust is part of a Surrey-wide consortium working to share resources and expertise in preparation for the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The consortium includes six Primary Care Trusts (PCTs), five Acute Trusts, three Mental Health Trusts, the Primary Care Agency and Surrey Ambulance.

Each trust is producing a thorough audit of all the information it has stored. With much information contained in departmental box files, this requires a huge electronic scanning and saving process in preparation for January 2005 so that people can easily access all the details of the documents online.

The exemptions under the legislation are personal employment files and patient files. But as of 1 January next year, almost all records - board minutes, policies and procedures, HR issues, reports and independent enquiries - become a matter of public interest and must be made available on demand or as part of the Publication Scheme.

East Elmbridge and Mid Surrey Primary Care Trust head of comms Debbie Binner emphasises that although preparations for the legislation are taxing, the trust welcomes the change: 'It is fundamental to the reform of the NHS, having a more open health service.' Binner concedes that her department is aware that the media will use the FOIA to obtain information.

'As comms professionals, we hope the public will ask about our business plans. In reality, we think there will be demands from journalists and legal representatives for information, and we will be doing our best to provide it,' she says.

Over the past eight months, the PCT has developed an intranet with the FOIA in mind, so that many documents are already online.

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