We probably have to thank the US film industry for popularizing the expression “So who wants to know?”. Gangland types uttered the phrase, which really meant, “If I consider you eligible, I’ll answer your question”. The same industry also put “need to know” into the vocabulary. Used at least once during (Hollywood’s take on) WW II strategic planning sessions this meant: “I will decide who needs to know what, and I’ll tell you when (and if) I’m ready”.
Such expressions illustrate very well earlier views on information. Owners were identified and access was strictly controlled. Much of what organizations did was considered “sensitive”, and “secret”. And where information was made available there were usually cumbersome processes that had to be followed, and possibly charges to be paid.
These views and values began to change three decades ago. Organizations, moved by unknown factors, started to loosen up. The notions of “client”, “client satisfaction” and “service” became institutional watch-words. Agencies, whether public or private, came to understand that there was a power shift underway that was changing who could define “needs”. Government officials started to talk about “who owns public information”? That shift is now well advanced.
There are still lingering anomalies of course. Colleagues and client interface workers will sometimes ask “So why do you need that information?” Imagine checking a book out of the library and having the librarian ask why you were borrowing a particular book! Would you be offended? Of course. But in our work routines we often think it quite natural to challenge the other person’s “need” for information. There are powerful movements afoot to release (some say “liberate”) more and more information into the public domain, and more and more are becoming concerned about issues related to privacy and security.
I recall my first encounter with privacy. My father, a soldier, died in the Second War of medical complications. As his only child I wanted to see his medical records. But I was unable to get “access”. Medical records are the property of the patient (whether alive or dead), I was told. I put this interest aside but several years later discovered that the policies had changed: I could get this information if I could demonstrate a need and a right. That requirement was met by a single page letter to the appropriate authorities. I have all those records today.
Information access and privacy are common topics today. Information custodians have very right to be concerned about confirming the terms under which information was gathered, and held, and how it can be released (if ever). In developing policies and practices to govern such information management it has become customary however, to link “access” and “privacy”. It is unclear to the casual observer how what appears to be an inherent conflict is resolved on a day to day basis.
The central citizen issue, I think, is that of ownership of information and one’s right to define one’s own needs. A person should have uninhibited access to information about themselves, whether held by government, physicians, utility companies, credit agencies, or whatever. (And people will want to be assured that not everyone else can see that information I suspect). Citizens will also want to have relatively free access to information that they need for family living, personal planning and employment purposes. Like me, many will need information about others (such as deceased parents, children or siblings) that will be difficult to accommodate. An individual’s information needs come up against another’s privacy needs.
The “information age”, often a euphemism for technological change, is really all about the emerging “informed citizenry”. People are becoming more adept at defining their own needs, and are developing access skills. Into this cultural shift comes such new technologies as the Internet. Now, for the first time, a general citizenry that values information has the means to get at it and move it around with ease. City halls continue to charge .25/page for by-laws which are, or will be freely available on-line. And people who want information on the criteria for awarding honourary degrees, or the pay scales for public employees, or information on toxic waste dumps will find a way to obtain it ( and probably take ownership of that information and disseminate it widely).
Such changes are now very much a part of “doing business”. I for one can’t predict where all this is taking us. It is, for example, now a frequent practice on the World Wide Web for individuals to establish “unofficial” sites which focus on specific events, personalities or corporations. How would you respond to someone else having “ownership and control” of what you would consider private or corporate intelligence, and disseminating it to the planet?
There is no question that public awareness, and demand will increase. There is as well no doubt that public technical skills and computer capabilities will improve. These trends will challenge both providers and users of information. Users may find themselves buried in data, and providers may find themselves buried in demands. Will either have what they need at the end of the day?
[This essay appeared in a 1997 edition of the Journal of the Financial Management Institute of Canada]
David G. Jones B.A., M.A.
Principal – Shibumi Management Canada