What makes FOI effective? FOI Officers do

FOIMan tells civil servants that FOI practitioners deserve credit for FOI’s success over the last ten years.

The National Archives in Kew, south-west London

The National Archives in Kew, south-west London

Earlier today I was pleased to speak at an event organised by the UK National Archives in Kew, south-west London, for central government information managers. The topic of my talk was “Ten years of FOI: what makes FOI effective?”.

The pedantic amongst you may point out that FOI is actually almost 14 years old, but of course the 10 years refers to the commencement date of the right of access to information which was 1 January 2005.

I decided not to give a potted history of FOI (partly because I knew that the following speakers, Dr Ben Worthy and Maurice Frankel, would do a much better job), but instead chose a number of anecdotes from my time as an FOI Officer. Some of them I’ve referred to here before. They included requests for information about the Olympics which caused angst for LOCOG and the IOC; a surprising request for correspondence about pandas; and perhaps the most surreal experience of my career – sitting in a room in Buckingham Palace discussing an FOI request whilst bear-skinned guards marched past performing popular tunes for crowds of tourists.

A key theme of my address was the difficulties that FOI officers have encountered over the last decade – and how they have successfully risen to them. The ever increasing volume of requests has been well documented, but those coordinating FOI activities in public bodies have also had to champion the legislation’s requirements often in the face of opposition from colleagues and those in high places. One audience member was keen to point out that senior officials’ views are often helpful in identifying sensitive information, and of course this is true. But nonetheless it often falls to relatively junior FOI officers to explain that it will not be possible to deny access to that  material. And the reaction to unwanted advice has on occasions been to shoot the messenger.

But despite these difficulties, FOI has changed the culture of government departments and public bodies. Although we hear many examples of responses being delayed and documents being withheld unreasonably, vast amounts of information have reached daylight. In some cases surprisingly so, especially given attitudes back in late 2004. There are lots of reasons that can be put forward for this, but I believe that a really significant one has been the growing professionalism, experience and knowledge of those who are answering the requests. They display integrity in their management of FOI requirements. They haven’t just accepted the status quo; they’ve helped push the transparency agenda, even when it made their jobs difficult. Even the relentless rise of requests is a positive sign – people recognise that FOI can and does work, otherwise they wouldn’t bother. FOI officers have helped FOI to make a difference.

They have made FOI effective.

Thanks to the National Archives team for organising a really interesting and successful event, and for asking me to speak.

 

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