One person’s freedom of information is a severe cost headache for a local council. Initial restricted access has recently given way to fuller access which has implied tremendous expense on councils. E-mails, for example, can now be requested. Local people could request them by council activity topic meaning the council has to dredge them out of backup sets. This is disruptive to ongoing IT operations and Wigan has changed its e-mail storage completely to avoid being locked into a very expensive black hole.
The Freedom of Information Act now requires the Council to provide e-mail messages related to any given issue. As there are 300,000 people receiving services from Wigan – it is one of England’s largest metropolitan districts – there could be a large number of such requests having to be serviced. The requests could cover subjects as diverse as schools, health and safety, roads and buildings, and tax collection
Paul Fairhurst is the infrastructure manager for Wigan Council and sets the scene; “The first driver was Freedom of Information requests from the public, In the past, people could only request files having to do with themselves as individuals. They hadn’t the right to ask for general information, such as why a certain road was built in a certain spot. Now new legislation allows people to be much more broad in their information requests.”
It is easy for people to make requests, but Wigan Council’s IT department wasn’t geared up to satisfy them: “Government offices have been put through considerable expense to retrieve information. Some cases have required copies of every email sent over such-and-such time. In the past, that would require restoring an entire system backup, week by week, to recreate the history. That was very difficult to do with just Exchange on its own.”
Another act impinges on the Council, the Data Protection Act; “Under UK data protection legislation, it’s just as important to delete information from an outgoing system when it’s not relevant as it is to keep it when it is. So, if information to do with some aspects of local taxation should only be kept for seven years, then we need to be certain we only keep it for seven years,”
The Council needed new IT systems to store and retrieve the requested information and also to delete out-of-date information. There was a performance requirement; “We needed a product that would allow us to quickly cover email records searches using keywords.”
But also there were technical requirements; “We wanted something that was server-based, rather than having to be installed on each individual workstation. Server-based applications don’t require us to interrupt users, and don’t overburden our IT staff with thousands of client installations It s time consuming for us to install new client software, and we’ve got to anticipate that horizontal applications - such as archiving, which run in the background - may be damaged by more frequently accessed, vertical applications. With archiving, we can’t afford any doubt. So we prefer to use server-based or thin-client technologies.”
There was another need – e-mail security. It was important that administrators be monitored under the new solution, and not given the power to dig into email records at will. Fairhurst said; “People couldn’t be worried that administrators and IT managers were looking over their e-mail. We wanted the administrators themselves to be monitored, with an audit trail referring to each message, so there were no worries from the privacy side.”
What the Council wanted was an e-mail archiving system that facilitated retrieval of all e-mails relating to particular topics. It also had to have good e-mail deletion facilities so as to comply with the Data Protection Act.
The Council evaluated ArchiveStore/EM from Connected Corporation, now a subsidiary of Iron Mountain, and found it met their needs. Fairhurst said, “We discovered ArchiveStore through one of Connected’s resellers, Netdala Plus, and another council organisation here in the northwest of England. We all share our experience, and this is the one that came out.”
ArchiveStore/EM provides automated archiving directly from the server, simultaneous with e-mail delivery to users’ in-boxes. This makes it completely secure, cavity-audited and fully compliant with e-mail archiving regulations. It also worked with the current system, as Fairhust explained; “ArchiveStore’s standards-based architecture works with our current Exchange server, and allows us to recover email to any messaging system we might install in the future.”
Installation went as well as any system the Wigan Council has used. Once in use Fairhurst said the software was very easy to use; ‘For such a powerful. system, it’s very simple. It’s a series of Java applications on a single server, using industry protocols to read the Exchange servers, which read the data into the general mailbox. It’s all, stored on a SQL server and uses a Web browser to display it. So, we understand all these technologies.”
ArchiveStore/EM delivered another benefit beyond what had been anticipated. Fairhurst said, “The (UK) Inland Revenue was in dispute with the Council, a matter of overpaying into a tax that we collect on their behalf. We sent them an e-mail, and they said it was gibberish. Well, the e-mail had been generated automatically by our financial systems, and so we couldn’t guarantee what it said, But the ArchiveStore system captured it on the way out, so we got hold of it and showed them it had gone out okay; and must have been turned to gibberish on their end. If we hadn’t had ArchiveStore set up, we would have had to trust what their system said was sent. So now we’ve got a level of credibility we wouldn’t have without the ArchiveStore system.”
UK Councils typically apply a Best Value test to purchases, which ArchiveStore/EM passed, as Fairhust said; “We apply a Best Value test to each new product we’re considering. It’s a process we go through, asking questions. Is this the best application for this need? Is there a cheaper product that does it almost as well? Should we spend a bit more to get a better balance between economy and functionality? I remember when Neil Armstrong, the astronaut, said that it gave him great confidence to know that he was sitting on top of a rocket that had been built in each stage by the cheapest contractor! We want to be sure we’re getting the best value and not just the lowest price.”
Overall the use of ArchiveStore/EM has prevented the council falling into a pit of ever-increasing Freedom of Information cost and helped it to comply better with the Data Protection Act.