Hands Off

FOIMan has some suggestions for reducing the cost of FOI in government departments.

Whitehall Street SignWe often hear senior civil servants, ministers and others complain about the cost of FOI. No one can deny that it has an impact on the resources of public bodies, though estimates on its cost vary in terms of the figures involved, often depending on the argument the person citing them is advancing. It seems likely, given Michael Gove’s recent comments, that the current government will attempt to amend the rules to reduce the level at which requests can be refused.

However, often what causes problems for those answering requests and delays responses to those making them is the public body’s own procedures. If they are needlessly cumbersome or involve highly-paid individuals unnecessarily then the cost of processing FOI requests is being inflated beyond what is required. Here’s a perfect example.

Last night at about 11pm, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Greg Hands MP, tweeted:

Am about to answer a Freedom of Information (FOI) request as to how many FOI requests the Treasury has received. #FOIMadness.

I’m in complete agreement with the Chief Secretary. This is FOI madness.

What is a cabinet minister doing anywhere near such a routine FOI enquiry? I can completely understand why they might want to be kept in the loop on politically sensitive requests or those directly affecting themselves, but the number of FOI requests received? FOI teams record this information routinely, and it is published by the Ministry of Justice on a quarterly basis. If the Treasury really felt this request was a waste of time, they could quite properly refuse it on the basis that the data is otherwise available. It only requires a link to the relevant page to be provided. (Here they are – I just googled them and found them in less than a minute).

And of course, far from being a mad question to ask, it’s a very sane one if you are wanting to show that FOI is working, or indeed if, like I suspect Mr Hands does, you want to illustrate its burden. If Mr Hands wants to know about every FOI request received, then why shouldn’t interested parties outside the Treasury?

Anecdotally, I understand that when civil servants complain about the work involved in answering FOI requests, it is not so much the work required by the Act itself that causes the problems. No, it is the needlessly complex bureaucracy established to satisfy the desires of permanent secretaries and ministers to have control and oversight of what should be routine transactions between government and governed.

What’s particularly ironic about Mr Hands’ exclamation is that the Treasury is supposed to be leading the way on reducing the cost of government. Departments are meant to be reducing the deficit, partly by identifying efficiency measures. Involving the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the processing of routine FOI requests does not appear to be the most efficient way to manage them, or the valuable time of the minister himself. Perhaps a more hands off approach ought to be adopted by the Treasury’s ministers?

2 comments

  1. David Matthew says:

    I agree, Ministers and senior civil servants should in most cases not be involved in requests. Government is supposed to have a ‘transparency’ agenda and ministers should be briefed on appearances to answer questions. Perhaps Mr Hands should look at what his department is doing, like refusing to deal with an FOI enquiry because it does not include the words FOI in the body of the e-mail even though it is in the title as per the Cabinet Office instructions.

    Treasury are amongst the worst departments for not releasing information under the Public Records Act and for using a private company who are not subject to FOI.

  2. Serpico says:

    Completely agree – I used to work in central government where answers to the most simple of requests had to be cleared by Senior Civil Servants. This is indicative not only of the paranoid anti-transparency culture prevalent on Whitehall but also of a bizarre bureaucratic gradism (rooted in back-covering) where perfectly competent staff are disallowed from making even very simple decisions – everything is deferred to the highest possible level. FOI madness indeed.