I’ve been meaning to write this post since I read last week about Harrow Council. Their Head of Law was reported in The Lawyer as saying:
“The default model for most councils is that we won’t give anything away unless we have to…I want to turn the whole edifice on its head. I want us to move away from the defensive position of keeping everything to ourselves. I want to say that everything’s public except for a few obvious areas.”
Freedom of Information campaigner and journalist Heather Brooke Tweeted that “Finally a British Council sees sense.” Surely this is exciting news for us all. The walls are falling down. Us FOI Officers can pack our bags and head off into the sunset, secure in the knowledge that our work here is done. Maybe not.
Everybody assumes that information is in handy readable chunks that can readily be published on websites, and it’s only because public authorities are all terribly secretive that they’re not there already. There may well be reports that Harrow could be publishing on its website, and as many authorities are now beginning to do, and the Protection of Freedoms Bill aims to encourage, they can make many of their datasets (ie databases) available on their website. But beyond that, there’s a big fat problem.
Email. Or correspondence in any format, for that matter. A large proportion of FOI requests across the country are for correspondence on particular issues. And much of it won’t be exempt.
But how do you cater for that in Harrow’s model? Do you ask people to tick a box whenever they send an email to indicate if it is likely to be exempt under FOI? Do you then automatically publish any email that hasn’t been ticked? What happens if somebody doesn’t realise that the content of the email is sensitive? What if they accidentally forget to delete an email trail? And do you really want to know that I met Bill from Accounts for lunch at 1 on Friday? And even if you can set up such capabilities on an email system, it is likely to involve the introduction of expensive technology. Staff will begin to argue that time is being wasted working out which box to tick when they send an email. If you avoid the technological route, you still need staff to spend time afterwards working out whether correspondence can be published. And imagine the capacity required on the web server…
My point is that whilst it’s great that public authorities are looking at ways to be more open, it’s important not to oversell what they’re doing. I don’t imagine that Harrow are contemplating publishing all emails for a moment. Yet that’s how most business is carried out in organisations across the country.
What they’re really talking about, I imagine, is publishing reports and policies to their website rather than their intranet as a default. There are already some organisations that take that approach, and I’d agree that it’s a welcome move and could have potential to save money. But don’t expect to see public authorities up and down the country rushing to publish the contents of their email inboxes.
I’m not sure that Harrow’s legal chap was implying anything else. The majority of enquiries that I deal with are for data, and I would say the public interest is primarily in the data. Whilst this may attract further enquiries as to the stories behind specific data, this will help to focus such enquiries as opposed to some of the vague, lazy nonsense that currently gets asked.
Email and other communications (let’s not get into social media right now) are always going to be tricky, but as councils adopt a regime of protective marking this will ease the burden slightly.
Perhaps as transparency becomes more normal, trust will not be quite so lacking, and suspicious enquiries may fall. As councils, partners and suppliers become more aclimatised to openness, it may even become possible to release communications without causing one of them to have an aneurysm.
Keep up the good work!