Growth of electronic records creates problems for FOI

The growing number of electronic records is making it increasingly difficult to answer official information requests, according to New Zealand deputy ombudsman Leo Donnelly.

He says the problem is not that information is stored electronically, but that the systems are inadequate: "The real issue is that the systems for creating and maintaining records often haven't kept pace."

This poses a challenge when trying to identify and retrieve records relevant to official information requests. "People don't want everything, they're only looking for parts of information. It's how to find the part they want," he said.

Mr Donnelly was worried that failure to adequately answer official information requests could create mistrust among the public: "It can create suspicion if the information that people expect or think is going to be there isn't."

But people need to be realistic about what information is accessible since not all requesters understand that their requests cover an enormously wide range of information.

Mr Donnelly's comments echo those of Commonwealth Ombudsman in Australia, Professor John McMillan - recently in Wellington for the Fifth International Conference of Information Commissioners. He says governments administering freedom of information laws now face a major challenge in managing both paper documents and electronic files.

Electronic information raises other issues, such as whether deleted documents and e-mails on back-up systems should be available as records under freedom of information laws. He says retrieval of backed-up records can be time-consuming and expensive, raising the question as to who should bear the cost: "Governments are concerned, but there are no easy answers. If we excluded a document from the scope of freedom of information acts then that creates the opportunity for abuse."

Records systems `lacking' (, Dominion Post, 17 December 2007)