Previously, in FOI…

FOI Man and The Guardian ensure that everybody is up to date with the story of FOI in the UK so far.

Ah bliss. It’s FOI season again. GoveGate (which is not going away, despite the best efforts of the DfE) has brought it back to the fore (well, sort of – it’s not exactly front page news in most papers). This morning the Guardian has a feature celebrating the “mixed results” of FOI.

It starts with the famous quote from Blair saying that he quakes “at the imbecility” of introducing FOI. The man, quite frankly, is a loon. As the Guardian article notes, the US has had an FOI Act for 40 years. Add to that the fact that Australia and New Zealand adopted one in the 80s. Nowadays most of the Commonwealth has implemented, or is in the process of implementing, FOI legislation. Many well before the UK. Even countries not noted for their liberal values, say, China for instance, have FOI legislation in some form nowadays. Sweden has, famously, had one since 1766.

It’s Blair’s unique form of narcissism  which firstly leads him to believe that he had any choice – would he rather have been bracketed with shadowy dictatatorial regimes than the rest of the Western world – and secondly that he would feel shame about something that most observers would conclude is the greatest constitutional achievement of his time in office. Like I say, the loon.

Returning to the Guardian article though. And it’s another old friend – The Big Shred. Not Fred, but the stories that public bodies spent the months before FOI came into force in 2005 shredding every document and deleting every email that might conceivably be asked for. Ian Cobain’s (the Guardian writer) conclusion is that “There seems little doubt that the material destroyed would have contained information of considerable public interest”. Sigh.

I was one of the people who developed guidance encouraging staff to shred and delete material before Christmas 2004. Like all public bodies – like all private bodies, come to that – my organisation could have done better when it came to managing its records and information. As a records manager, I, like many others, shamelessly used FOI as a stick to encourage colleagues to do what they should always have been doing and go through their records to destroy what they no longer needed, either for business or legal reasons. There was a policy. We were not – and I’m sure this was the view in other public bodies – deliberately destroying information to avoid FOI. We were exercising sound management. If that exercise hadn’t happened, there would have been a hell of a lot more refusals on grounds of cost in 2005 and the years following.

Well, I’m sure that’ll put that story to bed.

The Guardian article wheels out a few other chestnuts, such as the Constitution Unit’s report from last year on the impact of FOI (it gets full marks on it’s core objectives of transparency and accountability, but only 1/4 on it’s secondary objectives – Government IT programmes dream of that kind of performance). And surprise, surprise, MPs Expenses.

So, is everyone caught up with the story so far?

One comment

  1. S Jones says:

    Interesting point about the records management. The Department of Health has guidance on Retention & Disposal of records here – http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsPolicyAndGuidance/DH_4131747.

    There has to be a balance of public interest in historical records and the resources required to store them.