The comments by Peter Wanless that record keeping in the Home Office has been something of a shambles has quite rightly caused a degree of political embarrassment in the context of the sexual exploitation enquiry. It raises all sorts of questions about matters that may have been overlooked or responded to inadequately as a result. The news also challenge the idea that big brother is watching us and keeping records on what we get up to. All of us have to differing extents the need to store data and records. Some of us do it meticulously and some take an approach of a client of mine in a previous business. I once visited the client and asked him if he had received some information I had sent to him. He explained that when post arrived he put all official looking items into a drawer and then every 6 months or so he would empty the drawer into the bin. In part this reflected the challenge for someone whose ability to read and understand what had been sent to him was almost non existent. Sadly in the late 1990’s few organisations understood the challenges faced by people like my client. Today things are not much better. However whilst no one could get a job in most parts of the Home Office unless they can read and write, and understand information, the challenge for Government agencies is no less acute than for my client, albeit on a different scale.
The speed with which Politicians can decide that information is required and must be stored can far outstrip the analysis needed to determine how realistic or sustainable such a policy is. Although our current Home Secretary has been in post for over 4 years, the previous Government saw a huge number of men appointed to this post and each arrived with their own ideas and made their own statements, leaving behind a trail of commitments ignored by successive Ministers. I recently met a senior public servant who is responsible for calculating how to store a new type of digital data if the ideas proposed by the Home Office are carried through beyond a pilot scheme. This person has some chilling figures to show how easily a small amount of information, when multiplied upper for a substantial number of ‘transactions’ can place a huge burden on all of us. It is clearly vital that the files in the Home Office provided by Geoffrey Dickens on Paedophiles at the heart of our institutional life are found and the men and any women concerned are prosecuted just as harshly as their crimes have been. It is vital that we invest what is needed to ensure that all Government departments store the important files properly. However we also need to ensure that even if it embarrasses some of our leading Politicians, that we don’t store things that are of no use or that cannot be justified, no matter how good the idea behind them seemed at the time of the speech.