How Pro-FOI is the Coalition Government?

This week, we’ve heard about Conservative proposals to extend FOI. But apparently, that’s not all. The Lib Dem Minister responsible for FOI has indicated that the extensions may go even further:

“what the coalition has committed itself to is an examination of how the Freedom of Information Act has worked, where it could be extended within its present powers and where it might be extended by primary legislation.” (Source, Campaign for FOI blog)

We’ve seen in recent months several announcements about openness. So is this Government more open than the last? And how long can it last? Yesterday I received a message via Twitter from one of my readers directing me to Sir Humphrey’s thoughts on the matter.

Seriously though, some observations. I think we need to give the new government a chance to show its hand on FOI and openness. There is a difference between choosing to publish all expenditure over £500 say, and having to answer requests made under the general right of access under FOI. It sounds very open to publish information pro-actively (and it is certainly something to be encouraged), but the public body still retains some control. It knows what information will be published and can design its processes and decisions around that.

The important thing about making a Freedom of Information request is that you, the citizen, choose what to ask about. Politicians and their advisors who may happily embrace the concept of open government, as long as they can choose what to be open about, go into the biggest flaps when confronted by an FOI request, exactly because they might have to disclose something that they’d rather not. I know – I’ve seen this happen. So I’ll be interested to see not just how much information the new Government is prepared to make freely available, but how readily they respond to individual requests under FOI. The experience of the Other Taxpayers’ Alliance is not encouraging.

There is, of course, a problem with extending FOI. It’s one of the great myths of FOI that it doesn’t cost anything. The Labour Government countered Conservative arguments (during the passing of the Bill through Parliament) that FOI would be an expensive burden by arguing that public authorities would be expected to deal with FOI requests out of their existing resources. That clearly hasn’t proved to be true, but resources for dealing with FOI requests are limited. Heather Brooke used FOI to compare spending on FOI with spending on public relations by police forces in the UK, and not surprisingly found that there were rather fewer FOI Officers in the UK than Press and Marketing Officers. It’s interesting that the very people who call loudest for cuts to public services are often the very same people that demand their rights (and extensions to their rights) to obtain information from those services.

So, like every public servant in the country, I say to the Government, put your money where your mouth is. If you want more openness, support your FOI Officers. And if you think that by pro-actively publishing information you will cut down on FOI requests, I suggest you take a look at this blog entry about the OpenlyLocal website. One-click FOI requests. I suspect I’ll be coming back to that one…

Personally, I’m a supporter of openness and certainly have no desire to see FOI weakened in any way. But any extension has got to recognise the practicalities – if you’re going to ask public authorities to do more, you can’t then take away resources, and in fact you may have to add to them. You only have to look at the Information Commissioner’s backlog of complaints over the last few years to see how meaningless rights are without the resources in place to deliver and enforce them.

Thanks for your interest this week – well over a thousand hits in week one. Do feel free to comment via the blog or twitter (@foimanuk) on any of the issues I raise here.

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