What’s wrong with FOI?

FOI Man makes the case for and against FOI and more transparency – what do you think?

It’s very easy for an FOI Officer to find fault with FOI. But hopefully regular readers will have picked up by now that I support FOI and moves towards openness in the public sector.

Unlike some, I don’t have any beef with particular groups who use FOI. Let’s look at the usual suspects.

Of course businesses use it to draw up contact lists for marketing, or to build databases which they will then sell at profit. It’s their right, and those who promote FOI in Government think this is a “good thing”. It is a mechanism that allows information collected or created at public expense to stimulate the economy. It is a strong justification of FOI in a largely market-based economy. It is why Conservative, as much as Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters, feel able to support openness initiatives.

Students use it to research their degree projects. So what? It’s good that they have the nous to use a facility such as FOI. We only have to provide what we have and if the cost is excessive we have an answer to that. It’s frankly not true that, as some would have it, we have to do their work for them – if information is publicly available to them, we just have to point them in the right direction and if necessary cite the exemption for information that is otherwise accessible.

It’s a good thing that journalists use FOI. I’d rather see stories based on evidence that I’ve helped provide than see badly researched sensationalism in the papers. Surely I’m not the only FOI Officer that gets a buzz when I see something I’ve provided mentioned in the Press? I sympathise with those who have become jaded because of the attitude of some (not all, or even most) journalists, and the way that some disclosures have been presented, but the answer is to remain positive and open, not to become defensive. Otherwise we just reinforce negative attitudes to the public sector in the media.

Users of WhatDoTheyKnow are using a service to make requests. It’s marginally easier to make a request using it than sending an email. Some will abuse that ease, but that’s going to happen with any route made available. And by engaging with those who work for and with WDTK, we have an opportunity to encourage responsible behaviour amongst requesters.

My point is that we can’t have a right and then quibble about who’s “allowed” to use it. And FOI is an important right. Whether we like it or not, it has become an internationally recognised badge of a free and democratic society. It’s as much about demonstrating our aspirations as a modern and progressive country as it is about accountability and transparency. This is one reason that I was disappointed by Tony Blair’s admittance in his autobiography that he considered FOI a mistake. If that’s true, that’s not only hindsight, but also short sight.

That said, of course, it’s very easy for supporters and users of FOI to become blinkered. One of the vaguely articulated aims of this blog is to demonstrate the impact that the legislation, and people’s use of it, has on public authorities and the services that they provide. It is neither perfect nor pain-free. And maintaining it, somewhere down the line, means choosing between FOI and provision of other services.

I’ve said previously that I am irritated by statements such as “it’s our information”. Aside from the fact that it is legally inaccurate, it is hopelessly impractical. Information is collected by public bodies so that they can provide the services that some or all of us rely on. Often, the provision of those services will be compatible with, and may even be served by, disclosure of the collected information to the public. But on occasion, it just isn’t possible, and it wouldn’t be in our interests (as a society) to do so. It’s not that I view Government as always benevolent and paternal, or take a view that we should accept what we’re given without question. But I do accept that at least some of the time, things work better without me or others knowing every last detail. If only because the physical means of disseminating that level of information will get in the way of the provision of essential services.

If FOI and other transparency initiatives are going to work, they have to be managed as a process. That means, I’m afraid, refusing requests that will cost too much. Recognising that some people do abuse the privilege and turning them away. And using exemptions where we have concerns over the impact of disclosure of certain information. It means thinking carefully about the resource implications (I know, dirty words in the public sector at the moment) of more transparency. I think it also means looking at how transparency and FOI can contribute to the wider aims of the public sector. It has to be more obvious to public servants what the point of openness is, beyond satisfying curiosity. Can it help us make the savings expected of us? Are there ways that it can be built into our processes to make them more (and not less) effective? What are the wider benefits to our society?

So what do you think? Do you have any ideas about the future of FOI and how it can be made to work better? I’m particularly interested in hearing your constructive comments on FOI and transparency (rather than the knee-jerk reactions that we’re all prone to when we feel very strongly about something). Let me know by commenting here, or via Twitter (@foimanuk).

4 comments

  1. S Jones says:

    No beef? Really? You’re a better man than I am! Seriously, I might complain about certain types of request, but these, as FOIman has said, are all part and parcel of an important right that should never be taken away: I am firmly in the FOR FOI camp (hey, I’m a taxpayer too, I want our authorities to be publically accountable and absolutely believe they should be).

    What would help? A few things to kick off:

    1. More consistency of reporting and website formats between public authorities – inevitably a council website will have different requirements from a hospital trust website, but there could still be much more similarity of structure (e.g. senior staff responsibilities, finances, statutory reporting ‘sections’, “local stuff”, etc.)

    Perhaps that would mean requesters would find it easier and therefore be more willing to do their own research, instead of losing the will to live trying to find the same information from numerous organisations, all of whom present it differently, sometimes using different terms. Despite having complained on here about certain types of requesters, I do have every sympathy with the difficulty of trying to ‘benchmark’ across differing organisations.

    2. Most organisations I’ve seen badly need to improve their publications schemes, making it more explicit what type of information each ‘class’ covers in relation to their own organisation.

    3. Publication of (anonymised of course) FOI requests and responses should be legally mandatory. As people get used to this being standard operating procedure, again, they may be more willing/find it easier to ‘search’ the information they want.

    4. Unfortunately, FOI is often not given sufficient personnel resource in organisations in terms of seniority and knowledge of the FOI lead and – if they are lucky enough to have them – administrative staff. More accessible training and professional registration could go a long way to address this.

  2. David M says:

    If FoI requests are going up, then the government should provide more support for FoI to enable those to be met, or they should pre-emptively release more data so they can simply direct FoI requesters to it.
    The idea that one should charge to stop people asking for information is absurd and insulting, given that taxpayers pay for services provided by public authorities and are at a huge power disadvantage when it comes to tackling that authority. FoI is a mere pea-shooter ranged against tanks.

  3. David M says:

    Oh and the authorities – certainly all govt departments – should have an all-purpose 911 style FoI email which is foi(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)nameofauthority.gov.uk – it’s crazy how one has to trawl through websites to track down the correct email addresses for a range of similar authorities.

  4. Paul Cardin says:

    I like the description of FoI rights as the ‘badge’ of a free and democratic society.

    But like Chuck Connors in ‘Branded’, I had my FoI and DPA badges torn off and thrown in the dirt.

    “…what do you do when your branded… and you know you’re a man”

    Good old Cheshire West and Chester Council. AND…. they see it as “lawful” and have a “settled intention” to do it again in the future!!

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