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LAST WORD NICK 74

18/1/11

15:22

Page 74

THE LAST WORD

Unlocking Our National Heritage n 7 January the Ministry of Justice announced changes in the way official records would be made available as part of a range of changes to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. These included the reduction of the 30-year closure rule, which restricts our ability to see government material, to only 20 years, starting in a phased manner for 10 years from 2013, with the aim of releasing 2 years’ worth of material – electronic or otherwise – to The National Archives (TNA) annually, thus doubling their workload. As the press release acknowledged, ‘this is a significant piece of work’, which TNA will oversee, despite a frozen budget. It was also revealed that government bodies and organizations would become more transparent about their record-keeping and data provision, incorporating for the first time several hitherto exempt organizations such as the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Financial Ombudsman, and making it easier for the public to gain access to sensitive data relating to court material and ministerial policy making. It all sounds like an episode from Yes Minister: you can almost hear Sir Humphrey Appleby chuckling at the prospect of greater accountability, then doing everything in his power to prevent it. ‘May I congratulate the Minister on such a bold decision to open up our records for public scrutiny?’ he would comment in a voice laced with irony, an observation that would almost certainly have the desired effect of ensuring a complete U-turn by the hapless Jim Hacker. It is a bold decision not only to lower the period in which official files are ‘closed’, but also to widen the scope of FOI. From the public perspective, surely opening up the records is a ‘good thing’, giving us greater opportunity to see the ‘stuff of history’ more quickly. This desire, though, is a product of the fact that we live in an instant-access online world, where expectations are far greater on data providers to give us more material: we want to see as much as we can, as quickly as possible, for free. ‘Want’ is perhaps the wrong word – rather, we expect and demand that our heritage is available instantly. However, we run the risk that this mentality starts to erode the process by which history – and the sources for its study – is created. It is not possible to consider the importance of an event until sufficient time has elapsed to weigh up the consequences, yet the culture of

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‘immediacy’ is all pervasive and highly persuasive. The specialist history channel Yesterday has started to broadcast a series entitled, without a hint of irony, A History of Now: The Story of the Noughties – we can barely wait for something to have ended before we start calling it history rather than current affairs; we talk about ‘the curse of hindsight’ in history, but we also need the perspective of time to assess an event’s significance. It is my fear that this cultural shift will have an impact on the creators of our written record. Politicians and their staff will think twice about committing pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, if they worry that it will be released to the world within a couple of years of their departure from office. The news is awash with stories of inappropriate emails, leaks and reckless tweets, whilst the expenses scandal is still fresh in the mind ... Conditions are not conducive to open, transparent government if people live in permanent fear of public scrutiny. How would you feel if a complete stranger wished to look at your financial affairs, personal notes and diaries? You would be very reluctant to commit anything to writing ever again, especially if you suspected that there was a hidden agenda. Furthermore, and perhaps most pertinent to family historians, there is an explicit desire in the proposed changes to sell this same data commercially. According to the press release, the FOI will allow ‘businesses, non-profit organizations and others to re-use the information for social and commercial purposes’ – in other words, data will be sold to the highest bidder. Surely if it is to be made public, it should be made freely available, since we’ve already paid for it with our taxes? The issue of Open Data is a subject I will be returning to in Last Word. Admittedly it is a difficult balancing act to perform: on the one hand, our politicians and civil servants need to be accountable to us, since our taxes are paying their wages. However, taking a longer-term view, are we not jeopardizing our history because we’re too impatient to see it? We may live in a world of instant access to electronic data, but to borrow a slogan, good things come to those that wait.

This ‘instant access’ mentality erodes the process by which history is created

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Y O U R FA M I LY H I S TO RY

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Unlocking our National Heritage