FOI: A Civil Servant Writes

FOI Man brings you a guest post from a civil servant who tells us how FOI is seen inside a central government department

This blog claims to bring you an inside view of the Freedom of Information Act, so I’m always glad to bring you a new perspective on the Act from the people who are subject to it. The people who answer FOI requests aren’t always the FOI Officers – often requests are delegated to staff in departments. This week I’m bringing you a guest post that has been sent to me by a civil servant. For obvious reasons they wish to remain anonymous.

The post-legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act has focused attention recently on the future of FOI. In amongst the arguments, we have heard a fair bit about how the attitude of the civil service is affecting its implementation. As a civil servant myself working in a Whitehall department, I wanted to add my voice to this debate. I’m grateful to FOIMan for giving me the opportunity to guest-post here, but I hope you’ll understand if I remain anonymous – civil servants don’t like the limelight. I should also say that I am only speaking from my own experience in one corner of one department, and wouldn’t dream of trying to generalise any of this across Whitehall as a whole. It goes without saying that these are my own views and nothing to do with my employer.

We have heard from the former head of the civil service, Lord Gus O’Donnell, that he feels FOI has had a ‘chilling effect’ on policy making. He’s the latest in a long line of former top mandarins to say similar things. However, this attitude is not confined to those in charge. I would guess that many of my colleagues would say they have similar reservations.

Let me say that I’m right behind FOI. I think it’s vital for us all to be able to ask questions of those running the country on our behalf, and for those questions to be answered. It’s part of a modern democracy; we have the freedom to choose our leaders and part of that is that they are accountable to us. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to ask questions.

Unfortunately on the face of it some of my colleagues don’t seem to agree. They curse FOI, they grumble about having to deal with it, and think it’s a waste of time and effort. Why are people asking for this? What on earth can they possibly want it for? All they’re going to do is use it to cause trouble for us, to make us look bad.

I think this attitude is misplaced. I can recall few, if any, FOI responses in my small corner of the Whitehall world that have led to us looking bad, or any type of genuine scandal along the lines of MPs’ expenses. Mostly, our requests come from members of the public wanting information to help them challenge their local council. We admit to ourselves that councils sometimes get it wrong, and that it would be great if they did it right. So why aren’t we behind the use of FOI as a tool to help achieve that?

We are a helpful department – even before FOI we were, and still are, generally willing to give people what they want just for the asking. I routinely get surprised members of the public on the phone amazed that they actually got through to a person who knew something, rather than a call centre. And we send out a lot of free literature to people. So why do we get so worked up when a similar request for information is labelled as an FOI?

I think a lot of the problem is the way that FOI is administered, rather than the principle of open access or the Act itself. We have a central team of FOI officers, but they act as a postbox, and advise if you get stuck. The actual business of collating information and responding to requests is down to individual policy teams. Most of the people dealing with FOI are therefore not specialists, and are doing this in addition to many other things, all part of their role. We’ve had some internal training on FOI, and make good use of advice from the departmental intranet, but by and large we’re on our own. Trying to navigate your way through exemptions, public interest tests and deadlines can feel like a minefield if you’re not sure of yourself. There’s also a complicated system for logging and monitoring requests, and for clearing draft responses. No wonder we get frustrated.

The preparation we were given in the run-up to the introduction of FOI in 2005 also did not inspire us to believe in the brave new world that was on the way. I distinctly remember the training being along the lines of putting the fear of GO’D into us if we didn’t comply with all of these new processes and requirements (please excuse the civil service humour there). It wasn’t sold as a chance to fundamentally change the way we worked, to engage better with our stakeholders, to improve our image, and so on. Most of our preparation focused on making sure our records were in order, including getting rid of all those useless emails we no longer needed (and before you all start writing stories about ‘civil servants deliberately delete data to avoid FOI’ I’m only talking about good housekeeping here. No-one needs 314 emails telling them that the weekly briefing will be held at 12 and to bring your own biscuits).

I don’t think we help ourselves sometimes, though. There are plenty of exemptions available to us to protect what really can’t be disclosed, but I also don’t think we make enough use of the cost limit and the exemptions for vexatious and repeated requests. And we could pro-actively publish a lot more – although we are getting a lot better at that. Resources play a part here – digitising the records of our most frequently requested material so it can be put on our website is a huge job, and not that high up on anyone’s priority list.

I have to say that although the Constitution Unit didn’t find much evidence of a chilling effect on policy making, on a day-to-day level I fear it may be having an impact. Routinely people half-joke about not writing things down ‘in case it’s FOI-d’.’

But if we are sure of our work, and our thinking and policies, then what is the problem with recording that and letting others see it? Maybe in one sense it’s time to go back to the old school, the pre-email days of memos written dispassionately with an eye to posterity and the 25-year review of the files, carefully drafted and weighing up both positive and negative. When, unlike with email, it wasn’t practical to cc everyone in and communicate your every thought, because the typing pool’s time was precious. Only what was important got recorded.

Recently I have spent some time digging through old files trying to trace the evolution of a policy. The files were incomplete – nothing to do with FOI, as it pre-dated that by about 20 years, but because people hadn’t been good at record keeping. If that is compounded by the irrational fear of disclosure leading to things not being written down, then we will lose an awful lot of detailed and important knowledge. In turn, this means future civil servants will have to keep reinventing the wheel as they won’t be able to look back on previous work and get a complete picture.

But maybe it’s not as bad as I fear. In spite of all the grumbling, we still accept that FOI is here to stay and do our best to comply. We still all start with the assumption that we’re going to disclose as much as we can, and don’t go looking for excuses not to.

So maybe all the grumbling is just the traditional civil servant’s way of letting off steam. Maybe, as younger officials come through the ranks and the dinosaurs die off, FOI will become embedded in our culture and be something that just happens. We can but hope.

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