FOI Man looks at the Government’s latest proposals for FOI 2.0.
The Government has launched a new consultation looking at Open Data and transparency in public services. I’m all for progress in this field.
I wanted to focus though on what the Government is saying about FOI specifically in this report. It suggests the following:
- establishing the principle that data/information not subject to exemptions should be published;
- a new requirement that all public bodies/providers of public services should proactively publish information about the services they provide;
- an enhanced right of challenge against decisions not to publish data to an independent body (I’m really hoping that they’re thinking about the Information Commissioner, and not another body to confuse matters);
- reform of the fees regulations – notably raising the ‘acceptable limit’;
- reviewing the Information Commissioner’s powers;
- statutory limits for internal reviews;
- using procurement rules to ensure that new ICT systems are designed to facilitate the publication of data;
- phased introduction of new generation of ICT systems that facilitate publication of data.
I don’t have a significant problem with individual proposals here. I worry about the practical implications of making it all work, especially at a time when the public sector is cutting staff. But I’m sure that Government, enlightened by the responses to its consultation, will factor all that in and make sure that adequate resources are provided.
My main concern is the general tone of this section of the report. In common with many reports by this Government, the underlying message is that public sector bodies and their employees are the problem. In this case, we’re clearly doing all we can to thwart openness. We’re only refusing requests that exceed the ‘acceptable limit’ because we can. All internal reviews are being delayed as long as possible, just because we can. We’re deliberately procuring ICT systems that make it difficult to publish data just so we can argue that it will cost too much to publish it.
No, no, no. I’m sure that some of you reading this will immediately respond that that reflects your experience of public bodies and FOI. And no doubt you have had bad experiences, or felt that you’d had a bad experience because your request was refused. But just because you didn’t get the outcome you wanted, or you had a bad experience with an authority that got it wrong, doesn’t mean that all public bodies are actively anti-openness.
As I’ve tried to make clear in this blog on a regular basis, the biggest obstacle to openness is the resource implication. Not only does it stop you getting information when your request exceeds the ‘appropriate limit’, but it’s also behind 90% of the disputes that I have with colleagues over disclosure – they’re not secretive, they’re busy; and the experience of having to carry out their main function whilst also digging out information poisons the minds of some officials to FOI in the long term. It’s a real issue. And you can hit us over the head and tell us how awful we are as much as you like, making FOI and openness work is about winning people round so that they can think about these issues positively rather than under duress.
So here are my proposals for a better, more effective FOI regime:
- more powers for the Information Commissioner;
- even more important, more resources for the Information Commissioner;
- ensuring that FOI requests can be regulated – I don’t mind how, but there does need to be some way to do this; like it or not, we have limited resources and likely to become still more limited. Charging is far too blunt a tool, but I’m not really in favour of raising the ‘acceptable limit’ – 18 hours is still a vast amount of time for an authority to spend on answering one person’s questions;
- ensuring that public authorities are resourced to facilitate openness;
- abolishing the ministerial veto;
- requiring public authorities to publish their statistics for FOI compliance (after all, how can the Commissioner ‘name and shame’ authorities if they’re under no obligation to publish or return such statistics).
This would be all along side more pro-active disclosure. But it all needs to be balanced against the ability to provide a workable service. Change, yes, but let’s make it gradual and realistic.