Opaque transparency

FOIMan observes that for all the legislation and talk of transparency over the last 10 years, it seems ever harder to find information about our public authorities.

We are all individuals!

We are all individuals!

FOI was supposed to open up our public bodies. They were supposed to publish information proactively and to answer requests from the public. Since FOI came into force, there have been other laws and initiatives all of which claimed to make publicly funded organisations more accountable. And yet every time I want to get hold of information, or get help with something, there seem to be more barriers than ever.

Let me give you an example. We want to carry out some building work on our house. Most of the work is internal, but we also want to make a minor change to the shape of the roof. Despite weeks of reading and re-reading the local council’s guidance on planning rules, we cannot work out whether we need planning permission. So we emailed the council and asked. Their response was that they couldn’t advise unless we paid for a pre-planning advice service. We decided to do this as we didn’t want to come up against problems later. Today Mrs F went to fill in the form that the council had sent us. At the top of the form in large unfriendly letters was the statement: “DO NOT USE THIS FORM TO ASK WHETHER YOU NEED PLANNING PERMISSION.” So the form we were told to use to seek advice on whether we needed planning permission tells us not to use it for that purpose. Attempts to speak to the council resulted in being left in a queue until eventually giving up. We want to do the right thing – are prepared to pay just to be told what the right thing is – but the council seems determined to avoid telling us anything useful.

I’m currently trying to find out who to market my services to in a range of public authorities. All I want to know is the relevant department, a job title and maybe a name of someone in Human Resources or Information Governance that I can send my sexy new leaflet to. I’m trying to find the people who manage FOI, or at least the ones who organise their training. But almost without fail, websites of public authorities now give very bland information and generic contact details. I’m having to guess. Of course, I could make FOI requests to find out, but surely it’s easier for them as well as me if they publish the details online?

I appreciate that some of you will have little sympathy for those wanting to send them marketing literature. But I would experience exactly the same if I was wanting to discuss my FOI request or a problem with service provision.

This appears to have got worse since FOI and recent transparency regulations. We’ve seen it with gov.uk – I’ve moaned about that before – but it’s spreading throughout the public sector. It’s one thing providing workflow services for various specific activities like ordering a new passport. Or publishing thousands of datasets. But if you, as a regular citizen, have questions or need help that doesn’t fit that model, you’re – forgive me – screwed.

There are tons of requirements now for transparency – not always complied with (I’ve seen at least one council site which appears to have given up on publication schemes altogether). But whilst there has undoubtedly been progress in some areas, in other ways things appear to have got worse. Often it’s the very measures designed to help that get in the way. Websites are increasingly designed to cut down on “clutter” (i.e. useful information) and focus on the delivery of the service rather than its organisation. But both these aims conflict with any attempt to resolve problems or do something the authority hasn’t predicted. Similarly the growth of “one-stop shops” has led to an inflexible workflow approach to almost any attempt to interact with some public authorities.

This is going to seem an odd thing for me to say, but it’s as if FOI and transparency rules are contributing to the problem. It seems to encourage an attitude of compliance and nothing more. If you want to find out the name and salary of directors at the council, you can find that – because it’s a requirement of the Local Government Transparency Code. But if you want to find out who to speak to about a planning matter, or even FOI, it’s almost impossible to find their contact details.

Transparency isn’t just about publishing what the government says you should. Nor is it about answering FOI requests within 20 working days. It’s about an attitude, a behaviour, which says we’re here to help. It’s about making it as easy for the public to see how decisions are made (and indeed to get decisions made) as possible and being proud to do so. It feels like public employees are increasingly hidden behind websites, rules and workflows. I suspect many of them would be as pleased as the rest of us if some of those barriers could be torn down so that they can do what they joined the public sector to do – help people.

One comment

  1. Andrew says:

    I refer my Right Honourable colleague to one of the obligations on Mexican federal government agencies, under that country’s federal FOI law: proactive publication of each agency’s staff directory online. Here’s the one for the Information Commission itself.

    If a country with a serious kidnapping problem can do this, the absence of it in the UK is surely just a matter of political will.