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The Impact of the Access to Information Act on Records Management in Jamaica

The success of access to information (ATI) legislation is premised not only on a government’s commitment towards disclosure but fundamentally on an effective records and information management programme. In bureaucratic cultures, a culture synonymous with the Jamaican government’s, records are viewed to be the sole property of the organization and are privy only to a select group of civil servants who contribute to the transactions recorded on each file, or by virtue of their position, have access to the files on demand.

These official records were not authorized to be used freely across the public authority. When the need arose for these recorded documents to cross the floor permission had to be granted. Prior to the passage of the Access To Information Act government records were deemed to be sacred, secret, confidential and territorial. There has been a gradual yet positive cultural change towards openness since the implementation of the Act in 2004.

The ATI Act legitimises the publics’ right to access official documents created and maintained by all government authorities. It is one of the boldest initiatives adopted by the Jamaican government to make government more transparent, publicly accountable and accessible to its populace and has created an environment to encourage and foster public participation. The Act has directly impacted records management in Government entities as demands on record-keeping practices have increased dramatically as a result of the ATI Act.

The Act itself relies heavily on a comprehensive records management programme in government along with the requisite professionals. This group of “access administrators” has come to realize and accept their role not only as the custodians for documented government information but also their obligation to guarantee and facilitate the public’s right to know what government is doing or has done. As such the tenets of the Act have been willing embraced and the administrative machinery powered to deliver good on the objectives of the Act.

Administratively, the Act highlighted the need for changes in government’s records keeping practices as it was recognized from the start that to become proficient at delivering ATI services to the public a good records management programme must be in place. A comprehensive and well-executed Records Management Programme is a strategic necessity in all government institutions. It is necessary in order to comply with legal and regulatory obligations and to support core functions and provide the basis for effective and accountable administration.

State of records management in government prior to ATI Act

Prior to the implementation of the ATI Act an over arching institutionalised records management programme was lacking within government. Records Centers (often referred to as registries) were disorganized. The incidences of files not being located in a timely manner occurred frequently. The practice of retaining all contributed to the congestion in the system. Dormant and obsolete records were shelved with current files, which further compounded the problem of timely retrieval.

Procedural manuals were not revised to reflect the ongoing changes as they occurred. Policies, guidelines and systems changed to reflect the needs of the public authorities’ records keeping efforts however, these invariably went undocumented thus leaving the public authorities to heavily rely on verbal/oral transfer of knowledge. Overtime these verbal instructions became distorted causing a breakdown of the established standards and procedures.

There was also a lot of distrust in the competence of the records officers to locate files on demand. Management of documented corporate activities was lacking or in most cases reduced to a clerical activity with no accountability of their stewardship. This gave rise to multiple storage locations throughout the organization and the proliferation of mini registries. Invariable the files kept in these locations were all not accounted for in the official system. Only the specific division or Unit to which these files relate were aware of their existence. The absence of an overarching records management policy assisted in perpetuating this practice. No sanctions were placed on officers’ negligence with regards to the loss or careless destruction of official records. 

Other problems that plagued the records management activity in government were ignorance about the value of records management hence the low priority given to records. The lack of an overarching records management policy and standard for government, low visibility of the Jamaica Archives in this records management landscape, records systems within organizations were open and unsecured and the continued recruitment of untrained records officers all impacted smooth implementation of the Act.

Challenges to the implementation of the Act

With the passage of the Act public authorities were mandated to institute effective records management programmes to ensure that information is retained as long as required and is readily accessible but also that that the right information is being created in the first place in order to document accurately the decisions being made or transactions undertaken. The challenges posed were varied. The lack of qualified staff, adequate funding, poor physical infrastructures and the absence of a culture of good records keeping had impacted negatively on the development of good records management practices overtime and made implementation of the act that more challenging.

The ATI Act which highlighting the inadequacies within the system, was also the catalysis that reenergized good records management practices in government. Its positive impact was reflected through the increased accountability of official records. It not only placed the emphasis on ensuring that information is retained as long as required and is readily accessible, but also that the right information is being created in the first place in order to document accurately the decisions being made or transactions undertaken.

The Act gave rise to a more structured and unified programme in government. The logical organization of records, standardization of systems and procedures, recognition and acceptance of the discipline of records management coupled with better records keeping practices became the main priority. This was not to say that no management controls did not existed in the past - far from it. But what had been lacking until now was a sense of a consistent, institutional wide approach to best practices not confined to individual departments, but spread across government.

This leads us back to the issue of cultural change, which can only become entrenched through organizational wide involvement. Records committees were formed where senior officers were integrally a part of the planned changes to be undertaken in the organizations records keeping practices. ATI has significantly impacted organizational communication and its resultant outflow to the public. Sine ATI, publishing in government has been on the rise. Non-exempted official documents are posted on their Internet sites for the public to again access without the use of the Act. Improved interactions between records management staff and officers in the public authorities have also facilitated the sharing of documents that were hoarded to facilitate the process of disclosure and openness by participating in the discovery activities to satisfy information requests.

The ATI Act has also initiated and built stronger links within government records management community. The Government Records and Information Managers (G-RIM) Group and Access to Information Association of Administrators (ATIAA) were formed out of the response to the perceived demands on records management and the Act. The groups have used the combined strength and expertise of their members to promulgate best practices in the administration and deliver of documents under the Act.

Positive impact

Administratively the Act has elevated record management to the importance and status it truly deserves within the organization and professionally. The recognition that ATI regime has brought with it can only be as good as the quality of the information to which it relates. Put simply, if there is no recorded information a government entity cannot provide access and without such documented evidence there can be no transparency, no accountability and therefore no participatory democratic governance.

The more visible impact of the Act has been increased accountability for records. The incidences of misplaced or lost documents have been minimized with structured records management programmes. The logical organization of records within the organization’s holding, improved records keeping practices and standardization of systems and procedures have all contributed to the recognition and acceptance of the discipline of records management. ATI has significantly raised the level of awareness towards the importance of records management.

Capacity strengthening of records management programme in public authorities is as a result of the Act. Training needs have been identified and training conducted to equip staff with the requisite skills needed to administer the Act. In some instances records keeping activities have been computerized to increase efficiency in service delivery and the prospect of introducing compatible electronic systems for information resource sharing is closer becoming a reality. Other areas of capacity strengthening has been achieved through networking within the professional community and through the monitoring and advisory Unit established to ensure full implementation of the Act.

Other positive impacts have been changes to the organizational structure of the records department to reflect the work being undertaken and to attract more qualified staff. Through business process reengineering there has been an alignment with other information functions such as information technology and public relations. The Act has forced public authorities to make clear distinctions between offical and unoffical records for acess. Official documents are no longer territorial but freely shared as a corporate resource and a document for public perusal once non-exempt. Greater reliance on the dissemination of documents via the corporate Internet is fast becoming the preferred route to disclosure to lessen the workload brought on by the Act when information is not readily available in the public’s domain.

On the administrative side better storage facilities have been provided for records, there is greater emphasis on records retention and the assured longevity of archival records. There is greater compliance with legal retention requirements, faster retrieval of information in response to access requests, fewer lost or misfiled records and benchmarked service standards set for document delivery. Additionally more resources are being allocation to the information and documentation functions in government and it is now an established line item in the government’s published budget.

Way Forward for RM in Jamaica

The commitment of government to the entrenchment of the ATI Act is genuine and recognising that this cannot be accomplished without good records keeping practices has ensured the continued strengthening of the programme to fullfil their mandate to its citizenry.

Helen Rumbolt
President Access to Information Association of Administrators and Director Documentation Information & Access Services
Ministry of Finance and the Public Service.

October 2009