Re-Using FOI – the Conservatives claim FOI for business

Interesting speech from Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Minister, at the Conservative Party Conference. It includes a section on ‘Transparency’. There is the usual blurb about openness, but the focus is clearly on making information available to business and voluntary organisations.

” Small businesses and voluntary organisations want information on which contracts are being tendered, so they can offer better and cheaper ways to deliver them…”

So far so reasonable, but how about:

“Thousands of commercial and social entrepreneurs have been frustrated by their inability to obtain and reuse datasets. I’m sorry to say that some councils spend time and money deliberately making data unusable to anyone else. “

My suspicion is that this is a reference to the refusal by some councils and other public bodies to disclose information through the website WhatDoTheyKnow.com (see here for an example). The Commissioner ruled that this approach was not appropriate when the House of Commons tried to refuse to send information to Whatdotheyknow.  I tend to agree that sometimes authorities have been bloody-minded about this. However, copyright specialists are, I know, uncomfortable with this ruling – they feel that the Commissioner has failed to consider copyright issues properly.

I’ve found that colleagues often resent being asked to provide information to businesses, feeling that the private sector is benefitting unfairly from public expenditure, and this may also be behind the attitude Mr Maude describes. Sometimes there is a view (not unreasonably) that disclosing information to business will lead to expense down the line for authorities. I know that all public authorities regularly receive requests for lists of contact details for their staff, which may seem reasonable, but are clearly intended to build up lists of contacts who will then be sent marketing emails. Many of you will sympathise with public employees who don’t want to be bombarded with unwanted marketing.

It seems that our new Government has little patience with these concerns.  They are proposing to amend the FOI Act “to ensure that all data released through FOI must be in a reusable and machine readable format, available to everyone and able to be exploited for social and commercial purposes”.  Fair enough, but let’s hope they consider any reasonable concerns from public authorities and address them in their new amendments.

Do please comment either by registering with the site or tweeting me – @foimanuk .

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  1. S Jones says:

    “Many of you will sympathise with public employees who don’t want to be bombarded with unwanted marketing.”

    It’s not just employees. Many of the committees that various public sector bodies are obliged to create – to ensure all factors/the best public interest in decisions have been considered – contain volunteers from outside the organisation, whose input is essential to provide a wider view of issues surrounding decisions that have to be made. There is a strong public interest in knowing whether the people who make decisions are “qualified” to do so, so if asked for details of committee members, we generally release their position (e.g. ‘General practitioner [town]’ or ‘Community representative – Local Involvement Network’) but do not release names or any contact details. If volunteers ended up receiving marketing calls/communications because of their role on a committee, I suspect our organisation would soon find itself without anyone wiling to serve on a committee. This would be a Very Bad Thing – any public sector organisation needs as wide a view as possible before making important decisions and not being able to acquire suitably qualified members for the committees who make those decisions would make that rather difficult.

    For what it’s worth, our organisation has never yet had any complaints as a result of this approach.