Custodians of government's history: A guide to the Knowledge & Information Management profession

Continuing the professions series, CSW takes a closer look at Knowledge and Information Management
Photo: Rob Walls/Alamy

By Civil Service World

10 Aug 2023





Who are they?
The knowledge and information management profession is made up of civil servants across government departments, agencies and arm’s-length bodies, led by head of profession David Smith – a deputy director in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

“Core” KIM roles include librarians, information managers, record managers, information rights officers, information architects and knowledge managers. People in these jobs will often have a recognised KIM qualification or be registered with a professional body.

There are also a number of “allied” KIM roles, including archivists, historians, information risk managers and data scientists. Some civil servants in these posts are part of the profession, but this varies between departments.
What do they do?
Described as “custodians of the government’s history”, KIM professionals are responsible for record keeping and curating information in all its forms – thereby ensuring departments are transparent and accountable to parliament and the public.

“It’s really about how we use, organise and make sense of information and knowledge… we want to use and exploit what we have as assets to drive improvement – whether that’s a librarian supporting inquiries in the House of Commons or using the knowledge that we’ve got already in government to drive innovation,” says Rebecca Dorsett, deputy head of the digital and information professions in the Ministry of Defence.
Where can they be found?
There are KIM professionals in every department. Under the Freedom of Information Act, each department must have an information management function with a designated manager as part of its organisational capability. The number in each organisation varies, with nearly 900 in the MoD alone.
What is a typical career path like?
KIM offers “among the most varied and interesting career paths of all the civil service professions”, according to profession head David Smith. Some civil servants begin their careers retrieving information to support policy colleagues and move on to working closely with private office teams, while others start out in digital, data and technology roles.

Dorsett – who is also chair of professional body CILIP’s Government Information Group – says information management is a common starting point because of the wide range of jobs on offer, along with IT support roles. “If you’re supporting a lot of frontline IT enquiries, you might start getting more interested in SharePoint and then thinking about how to manage information,” she says.

Another pipeline Dorsett has seen through her work at CILIP, which represents librarians, information specialists and knowledge managers across the UK, is “people making the transition from the more traditional library and records world, who are starting to look at what else they can do with their skills”. This is the route she first took into government.

More senior posts might include data protection officers looking at data flows arising from programmes such as Homes for Ukraine; or heading up a department’s KIM function and acting as departmental records officer.

 Which professions do they work most closely with?
KIM professionals work closely with colleagues specialising in data and research-related areas, like the analysis and social research professions. “All of these things rely on knowledge and information – and the better those things are processed, stored and used, the more effective you would hope government would be as a result,” says Gavin Freeguard, a consultant working on data policy and research.

There is also close collaboration with civil servants in several other “allied professions” – including comms staff, economists and scientists, digital and IT specialists, statisticians and programme and project managers. There is a lot of partnership working with the security profession – some of which comes under the mantra of “daring – but caring – sharing”, Smith says. This work is critical, he explains “to ensure an agile, but risk-based, approach to the pragmatic sharing of information – maximising technology to enable the provision of the right information securely and safely to the right people at the right time”.

KIM is “also valuable to the corporate functions [of the civil service],” Freeguard adds. “If you want to run those things, you need to be able to learn properly from what’s gone before; you need to be able to get hold of the right information at the right time. It should be underpinning just about everything else.”

Dorsett says there are two go-to phrases KIM professionals use frequently: “Have you saved that as a record?” and “Have you tried searching for that?” The latter is “a bit of a joke, but something we’ve got to tackle across government”, she says, noting that “information skills are a bit like digital skills: something everyone really needs to have”.

Another commonly heard phrase is: “If only this department knew what this department knows.” Smith explains: “KIM professionals are heavily involved in capturing, exploiting and appropriately sharing the knowledge held in the heads of departmental staff, which otherwise would be lost when staff leave.”

And he says KIM professionals can often be heard referring to the “digital heap” – unorganised collections of digital documents that they work on with the DDaT profession to reduce the amount of redundant, obsolete and trivial information on government servers – and also to the lack of a “Lord of the Rings information retrieval system: one retrieval tool to rule them all”.

How is the profession being developed?
The KIM profession launched a new skills framework last year to “build capability in the profession and help shape career paths”. The launch included an overhaul of the skills for each of the profession’s “job families”, and introduced a competency management tool called Comaea that enables people to track and record their L&D progress and see what they need to do to develop further.

Once that framework was in place, the profession contracted the Government Online Skills Tool – part of the Government Projects Academy – to examine its capability. “I think we were one of the first professions to really test what skills and capability we’ve actually got,” Dorsett says. That work is enabling the profession to identify skills gaps and where it needs to create new development opportunities.

 What are their priorities at the moment?
As well as looking at ways to support development, Dorsett says another major focus is to create more generalised role profiles for KIM jobs. “There’s still quite a lot of disparity across government, so it can be very varied what you might do from department to department – so we want to get a handle on proper job role profiles,” she says.

Priorities also include ensuring KIM professionals are set up for eDiscovery – the process of finding digital information to be used as evidence in legal cases – to support the government’s response to the Covid-19 public inquiry, and that they are working with other professions to manage new forms of information, including social media, and new information generation tools, such as AI.

Besides that, there is an ongoing push to drive “a culture that understands their information policies and recognises the value and risk that derives from good or poor information management – and that this is underpinned by close collaboration with digital colleagues”, Smith says.

Smith is also encouraging collaboration between the so-called communities that make up the profession – including the Association of Departmental Records Officers; the cross-government data protection officers’ committee; and the Committee of Departmental Librarians – to highlight the possibilities of KIM as a career choice. Alongside that, its leaders are working to champion the profession and make people aware of what it does – because, Dorsett says, “if we use KIM professionals in the right way, my God they can help transform things across government”.

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