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The Verdict on Freedom of Information

May 15, 2012

Last night’s Cardigan Continuum meeting proved to be very interesting with discussion around the arguments for and against Freedom of Information. The consensus seemed to be that those at the meeting were not convinced by either the argument that FOI cost too much, or that it was only used by journalists fishing for a story. And, although a ‘chilling effect’ was recognised, it was not felt to be directly attributable to FOI.
Eventually then, the verdict as to whether or not FOI had met its stated objectives was as follows, although bear in mind it is based solely on anecdotal evidence and a few glasses of wine….

1)    Increased openness and transparency – NOT MET
2)    Increased accountability – MET
3)    Increased trust and participation in decision making – NOT MET, indeed we were unsure how FOI could ever be a mechanism for increasing participation in decision making.
4)    Quality of decision making – NOT MET

Finally, though, although it was not designed with this specifically in mind, there was agreement that FOI had led to a higher profile for and more investment in records management.

The meeting also brought us a new face and an international visitor, all the way from Australia and the Recordkeeping Roundtable. Both were very welcome as indeed is everyone interested in the topic under discussion. We are aware that new members may be a bit daunted by the thought of trying to find us in the pub so we will be taking some photos at the next meeting to produce a rogues’ gallery for identification purposes and will also be trying to design some badges.

Whilst we are on the subject of administrative matters, this is advance notice that there will be no face to face meeting in August (something to do with a sports event), but that otherwise it will be business as usual. And so, the Twitter chat on FOI will take place at 8pm on Monday 28th May. Then, the next face to face meeting will be on 11th June to avoid the Jubilee Bank Holidays. The text under consideration will be the new Archives and Records Association Code of Conduct and we will meet at 6.30pm at the Marquis of Granby as usual.

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    Since the proposed (or it may be newly adopted by the time I post this, as the AGM is underway as I write) ARA Code of Conduct is quite short, I thought I would now ruin everyone’s sense of relief by posting some suggestions for further reading on archival ethics.

    I proposed the Code of Conduct for a possible Cardigan Continuum discussion in a moment of incredulity on perusing the papers circulated in advance of this year’s ARA AGM. That an association which has hosted both Randall Jimerson and Terry Cook as keynote speakers (was nobody listening?) at recent annual conferences could honestly and without a hint of incongruity be proposing – as a binding undertaking to be signed by all full members – a document which includes statements such as “The objectivity and impartiality of members is the measure of their professionalism”. From this you will gather that I find the revised ARA Code to be unsatisfactory, at best. But in the interests of encouraging an open debate, I am primarily confining what follows to a statement of context, rather than raising specific questions on the ethical and epistemological stance promoted in the text itself (which we can discuss at the meeting).

    The covering statement presenting the revised Code to members gives some background as to how the ARA review came about. It notes that the existing SoA/ARA Code was adopted in 1994 (i.e. 18 years ago) and that the creation of the ARA itself in 2010 was seen as an opportunity to assess its fitness for purpose. So far, so good; any standard must be modified in the light of experience if it is to remain effective. We are then told that a ‘small working group’ was tasked with carrying out this review, by considering whether the ICA Code of Ethics could be adapted for use by the ARA. We are not informed who was on this small working group, why the review was restricted to the ICA Code of Ethics (itself now 16 years old), or against what purpose or criteria the Board are able to evaluate the revised text to be a “resilient and workable policy”. I cannot find any other information on the ARA website as to the remit of this review, nor any indication that the wider ARA membership have had an opportunity to comment on the revision process (I may well have missed something here, but it is interesting to compare the thoroughness of the review process and criteria considered by the Society of American Archivists in revising their own Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics, completed just last year).

    The revised ARA text is an almost word-for-word copy of the 1996 ICA Code of Ethics, with some very minor amendments to shoehorn it to fit the ARA context: essentially, and I think rather oddly, replacing the word ‘archivists’ throughout with ‘members’; an additional paragraph 1. to the effect that ‘members must seek to promote the objects of the Association as set out in its Memorandum and Articles of Association and must not engage in any action which is contrary to those objects’; and some added statements at the top taken more or less verbatim from the old SoA Code (under the headings ‘Purpose’, ‘General guidelines’ and ‘Standard requirement’). If you look carefully, you can even spot the font differences resulting from the use of cut & paste! [On a slightly snarky point, if anyone has kept a copy of the Articles of Association, perhaps they could bring this with them so that us ARA members can see what they are signed up to promote? – I can’t find this document on the ARA website either.]

    Now the ICA Code has, according to Chris Hurley, a slightly colourful history all of its own. I did try, incidentally, to follow up ICA’s own account of the development of an international Code of Ethics, via Yvonne Bos-Rops’ paper given at the 2004 ICA Conference in Vienna, but it seems that the ICA has failed to ensure its ‘continuing accessibility and intelligibility’ (i.e. that webpage no longer exists – oh, the irony). But even ICA does not appear to have expected national associations merely to swallow the international Code whole, but rather to customise and strengthen it with additional rules and examples; to tailor it to the national context. And notwithstanding ICA’s decision in 2008 not to go ahead with a revision of the international Code, it is not without criticism in the archival literature. Also, the (recordkeeping) world has moved on somewhat since 1996, indeed so much so that it is tricky to know what kind of examples to pick – but for a fairly diverse and random sprinkling (sorry, this is slightly UK biased, but you get the idea) let’s consider for starters Derrida’s Archive Fever (also 1996), the Human Rights Act (1998), the Enron scandal (2001), Freedom of Information legislation (2000), Wikileaks (2006 onwards), a whole raft of institutional care abuse cases, oh and the Internet… It is true that the ICA Code does fare slightly better in one other critique than the existing SoA/ARA Code of Conduct, but if it is really the best currently available statement of archival ethics out there, then why has SoA/ARA waited 16 years to implement it?

  2. I won’t try to compete with the quality or quantity of the previous comment, just suggest a question for the FOI-related Twitter chat.

    Is there (or should there be) a “right to know” or is it a “right to ask”?

  3. Question for the Twitter chat:
    Should all government information be available without the public having to ask under FOI?

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    My questions for FOI chat (bearing in mind I wasn’t at the meeting and haven’t read all the documentation):

    Given that the meeting concluded that FOI had not met 3 of its 4 stated objectives, should the legislation be repealed? And if not, what changes would be most effective?

  5. and lets not forget the troublesome new thought from the EU – “The right to be forgotten” !! – These pesky Human Rights get everywhere !!

  6. Should Say I have not done the reading yet but have been thinking about role and ethics of archives in nation building and truth& reconciliation – in context of The “Arab Spring” and Syria etc.

  7. Leaving Late for the meeting 🙂 see you soon

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