FOI v Open Data?

FOIMan questions Cabinet Minister Francis Maude’s suggestion that FOI requests will be made redundant by the government’s transparency and open data initiatives.

Francis Maude made a speech earlier today about government transparency and open data. It caught my attention partly because of a section in which he talks about the Freedom of Information Act:

Ten years ago the Freedom of Information Act came into force. Tony Blair called it his biggest mistake. But it was a historic piece of legislation, it wasn’t perfect. My aim if I’m honest with you is to make Freedom of Information redundant. My view is that we should be proactively making public everything that is appropriate. You should make redundant the need for people to ask for access to information.

Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office (reproduced under the Open Government Licence v3)

Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office (reproduced under the Open Government Licence v3)

I don’t think anybody would question the laudable aim of making information available to the public proactively. The government has made lots of data available and, as I reported in my last post, has forced other parts of the public sector to be more transparent. There are practical challenges caused by these requirements, such as how to make the vast amount of data useful and accessible to the public, and how to avoid making public authority websites unnavigable and cumbersome. But in principle it is undoubtedly a welcome development for central government to be talking so positively about transparency.

However, I do question Mr Maude’s aim of making “Freedom of Information redundant”. The key here is his phrase “we should be proactively making public everything that is appropriate.” Who decides what is “appropriate”? How do people challenge that decision? What if people have further questions about the information that has been disclosed?

Statistics also out today show that of the requests that were considered “resolvable” by the Cabinet Office between July and September this year, only 29% were granted in full. So nearly three-quarters of the time, the Cabinet Office considers that it is not appropriate to disclose the information people actually are interested in. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Cabinet Office is wrong to withhold that information in every case, or even most cases, but it does place a whopping big question mark over Mr Maude’s ambition to make FOI redundant. No matter how much information is published, people will want to know more than government is willing to put out there.

Mr Maude’s comment echoes the Prime Minister’s statement that FOI requests are “furring up the arteries” of government. Of course, if you want to run government efficiently, FOI is not the best way to be transparent. Answering requests can be time-consuming, and it is difficult to allocate and plan resources. This is the argument of many in the public sector who criticise it. But it is the main reason I think it is so valuable. If you were running a business, nobody in their right mind would choose to obligate themselves to answer requests for information in this way. That’s the point. Delivering public services is not about running a business. It involves spending people’s money to make the country and communities work in a way that benefits as many as possible, whilst giving them as much say as possible in the way that happens. That a government recognised that people should have a right to question public bodies about the way they are delivering services, despite the inconveniences that it may involve, is something that gives me a little faith in politics – and God knows, we need more of that.

Mr Maude and the government’s ongoing efforts to publish more public sector information should be welcomed. But they will never make FOI redundant – true transparency requires both.

4 comments

  1. Angus Gill says:

    Didn’t the MP’s expenses scandal evolve from FOI requests? Would their sins be found out as they fought tooth and nail to label them as inappropriate?

    I’m tracking down a diversion of public funds to a private company and can only use FOI to get the information. Even then the requests are being blocked or refused.

  2. Serpico says:

    Excellent article. I have long felt that Open Data, while a valuable thing in itself and especially to those clever enough to use it, also served a political end of apparent commitment to transparency (providing literally masses of information not useful to the majority of people) simultaneously undermined by most Ministers’ genuine disapproval of FOI (Cameron’s furred arteries etc.). This cynical view is sadly supported by Francis Maude’s department’s risible (or deeply distressing, depending on your mood) attitude to the FOI requests it receives. The public should decide what information they require – the rather sinister ‘mother knows best’ approach suggested by Maude will never be commensurate with democracy and is open to abuse.

  3. Shaun O'Connor says:

    MR Maudes idea of FIO being made redundant, couped with his additiona assertion of making public everying ahtat is”apropriate” is very much a double edged swaord are we to assume that data will be graded( it already is anyway). are we seriously supposed to accept the governments final decision of what should and should not be made publicly available. and what about the public interest factor ( not merely interesting), my gut feeling is that governmet is actually finding ways to be more secretive under the pretense of openness. or transparency.