Information commissioner Richard Thomas has warned the public sector he will not allow freedom of information issues to be neglected.
Six months into his job, Thomas is switching focus from data protection to the legislation due to come into force in January 2005 that will allow anyone to make a request for information held on them by a public body.
He said the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act would challenge accusations of bureaucracy and excessive secrecy in the public sector, where even some in the "highest echelons" see the legislation as the end of civilisation.
"Most companies see data protection as a priority, certainly in the public sector; but not all organisations see freedom of information as being in their best interests," Thomas said.
"But this affects everyone in the public sector, even those at the most junior level. There's a lot of work to do in preparing staff - you need to know what information you hold, where to find it, and how to make it more easily accessible."
The FOI Act is part of a drive towards electronic records and document management across the public sector by 2004.
The law offers 23 exemptions to providing information, including commercial confidentiality, national security and defence.
Guidelines on the new legislation, outlining public bodies' obligations and how they should best deal with requests, are due to be published next month.
"If I had a message for public bodies it would be get your act together," Thomas warned. "Time is short and the next 18 months will go very quickly.
"I won't be tolerant to those who say 'I didn't know it was coming'."
But although Thomas has the power to overrule any objections to providing information on the grounds of public interest, he in turn can be overruled by a cabinet minister.
For more information on the Freedom of Information Act see the Lord Chancellor's department website.
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