FOIMan suggests ways to respond to the government’s recent announcements in relation to FOI. 

Save FOI
How can you help to #saveFOI?

In the last couple of weeks it has become increasingly clear that the Freedom of Information Act is under threat. First there was the announcement of the Freedom of Information Commission, which appears to be a vehicle for identifying ways to limit FOI rather than extend it. Then on Friday we discovered that the Ministry of Justice is consulting on the introduction of fees for Tribunal appeals.

What can you do?

If you’re a supporter of FOI, you may be feeling pretty bruised by these announcements. And many will be thinking about what action they can take. So here are some suggestions:

  • first and foremost, consider supporting the Campaign for Freedom of Information; their Director, Maurice Frankel, has been fighting for FOI for 30 years, and it is largely through his persistence and knowledge of the way Westminster works that we have an FOI Act in the first place – and that previous attempts to weaken it have failed. To keep going, the Campaign needs donations – details of how to contribute can be found on their website.
  • last time FOI was under threat, a group of us blogged. The power of social media is often exaggerated. But firstly it was a way to get our frustration off our chests. Secondly, once it was out there, it was read – mostly by fellow geeks, but occasionally by journalists who were inspired to write something more erudite in their newspapers and online offerings (for example, one of my favourites, here) – most of which had a substantially larger audience. If you have a blog, write about your views on FOI developments and let everyone know – perhaps via Twitter…
  • …talking of which, we also Tweeted. We used the hashtag #saveFOI and launched a Twitter feed @saveFOI from which we live tweeted the Justice Select Committee hearings held as part of the post-legislative scrutiny. It kept people informed. Use the hashtag #saveFOI now if you Tweet about anything to do with the FOI Commission or Tribunal consultation.
  • we responded to consultations. The Justice Committee asked for views on FOI as a precursor to their oral hearings. Many of those who were critical of FOI and wanted charges to be brought in responded. But so also did many others who argued cogently in defence of FOI. The Committee’s final report quoted these responses. This time there is a consultation on Tribunal charges, and there will have to be a consultation if the FOI Commission recommends changes to the fees regulations and the government is minded to make them. Make sure you respond – consultations have made a difference before, and may well do so again.
  • talk about how you’ve used FOI. If you’re a campaigner or a journalist or anyone else that has used FOI to assist them, make sure you spread the word about how helpful FOI has been. People need to hear about its value as well as the costs they will hear about from others.
  • talk about how you made FOI work in your organisation. It’s one thing hearing from users of the Act how useful they have found it. It can be even more powerful for practitioners – FOI Officers – to talk positively about the rights that keep them gainfully employed. Tell people in your organisation and publicly – if possible – about why you think FOI is a good thing, and how managed well, it is possible to balance the right to know with good government.
  • use your strengths. If you’re a journalist or work in the media, please do write and broadcast about these developments – use your influence. If you’re a graphic designer or open data guru, use publicly available statistics to create whizzy infographics. Look at what RightsInfo have achieved. Make sure you publish them with a Creative Commons licence allowing others – and especially the media and the Campaign for FOI – to re-use them and get them to a wider audience. Whatever your skill, knowledge or position is, use it to defend FOI if you recognise its importance.

The point is – do what you can. Save FOI is a badge and anyone can wear it if they want to retain the right to know.