I wrote 14 October 2007, that a group of academics and politicians had suggested Australian government documents in electronic format should be released by default. That was an idea which was not likely to be approved, but I set it as a workshop exercise for students on my Electronic Document Management course. The Australian Labor Party then announced its policy for the reform of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, creating a new Office of the Information Commissioner. So I set that as an examination question. Most of the students on the course are public servants and if the ALP is elected they will likely have to implement whatever they proposed.
The problem is that the volume of electronic records will overwhelm the current manual FOI process. The proposal from academics was to go to the other extreme, by making all electronic government records available automatically. That proposal has its own problems, which the class pointed out in their answers to the exercise.
One of the class suggested setting up a new government agency to handle the release of records. Coincidentally, during the course the ALP released its policy proposing just such an agency: The Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC). So for the examination on Saturday, I asked the class how to implement the IT system for the OIC, using XML and web technology.
The obvious way to do this is to use the same tools and techniques as now used for transferring electronic records from agencies to the National Archives, but speed it up. The National Archives free open source "XML Electronic Normalising of Archives" (XENA) and "Digital Preservation Recorder" (DPR) software tools are now used to process electronic records extracted from agency systems, such those based on Tower Software's Trim.
The OIC staff could use an online federated system to search the records of all agencies. OIC staff would then place an automated request for relevant records with each agency for retrieval. It would only need a few seconds for the system to extract the records, but perhaps a day would be allowed for the agency to review the records and release them to the OIC. XENA and DPR would catalog and format the records.
The OIC staff would need to be security cleared and their systems would need to be secure. However, this is something that oversight commissions already have to deal with day-to-day in government. When at the Commonwealth Ombudsman's Office I had to look after IT systems for dealing with with sensitive materials from agencies, including security agencies.
ps: Today I bumped into one of the staff from FunnelBack, who mentioned they had already implemented an interface to allow searching Trim. Their approach would need some tweaking for a government wide service, due to security issues, but would be a start.
The Australian newspaper headline for Tuesday 6 November 2007 was: "Flow of Information blocked by government secrecy" by Chris Merritt. This discussed the federal government's restrictions on FOI. Unfortunately I was not able to find the article in the online version of the newspaper.
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