FOI Man highlights forthcoming changes to FOI and provides some hints and tips for public authorities on how to deal with them.
Last year, the Protection of Freedoms Act was passed. Amongst the changes it brought in, were a small number of amendments to the Freedom of Information Act.
But we’re still waiting for most, if not all, of those changes to come into force. To bring them into force, the Government has to lay a commencement order before Parliament…and this is yet to happen. It was expected that the commencement order would be laid last month, bringing the changes into force on 1 April. But this has now been delayed, as reported by the Information Commissioner’s Office earlier this month.
The most significant change is the requirement on public authorities to release datasets in a reusable format, and to publish disclosed datasets in their publication schemes. In my latest article for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal, I’ve written about these requirements and how to comply with them. (And don’t forget also my report on open data work at Southampton University, which contains further tips on managing and publishing open data).
Personally, I don’t think public authorities should worry too much about these changes. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, as I commented when the Bill was first published, the effect of these changes will be very limited in my view – they change very little. Public authorities already have to provide information in the format requested “so far as reasonably practicable”; I’ve never been convinced by Francis Maude’s claims that public authorities routinely (and deliberately) choose to disclose data in pdf just to frustrate entrepreneurs.
There may be a mad rush of requests for datasets later this summer (if indeed the Government sticks to its latest timetable), and no doubt there will be more impact for some than others. But I don’t anticipate that this is going to cause significant issues overall.
What can public authorities do to prepare? Well, I suggest the following:
- identify your key datasets – if you regularly get requests for particular data, then you know what is likely to be asked for in future
- work out what kind of licence you want to apply to these datasets if you disclose them; the easiest thing will be to use the Open Government Licence for information your authority owns the copyright for, but it is likely you will also be able to offer a non-commercial licence (limiting re-use to non-commercial use) or a charged licence (allowing re-use in exchange for a fee)
- set up a section in your publication scheme for datasets and if you are happy to disclose datasets and make them available for re-use, get them up there on your website for people to use – don’t wait for the requests
- once you’ve released a dataset and have licensed re-use, you are obliged to make it available in your publication scheme and to keep it up to date.
That last point may sound worryingly like a potentially unmanageable task for some public authorities, but the relevant amendment goes on to say “unless the authority is satisfied that it is not appropriate for the dataset to be published”. “Not appropriate” isn’t defined (as ever), but if it would be expensive to keep the dataset up to date, for instance, that might well be a justifiable reason not to do so.
So the usual advice applies to these changes – don’t panic! But we’ll have to wait and see what the actual impact will be. And indeed when that impact will be felt. At the moment we only have a draft Code of Practice to go on, so hopefully these few thoughts will be useful.
If I don’t remember to say I want excel spreadsheets I tend to be sent pdf files which are hopeless. I then have to go back and ask for xls files and point out they created the pdf file from an xls file. I usually then get it but what a faff.
Good stuff Paul, but one thing I would want to add, and caution, is that the drive to publication of data sets in reusable form carries with it real risks of serious breaches of data protection, if not done properly. We have all heard rumours of horrendous inadvertent disclosures of sensitive data, often through the publication of pivot tables, where the disclosing organisation clearly haven’t fully understood what it was they were disclosing. To the extent that some disclosures have been made in PDF or other image format I suspect it might have been because of fear of this happening (and lack of competence to avoid it).
I do think there is call for an educational campaign to warn of the dangers of inadvertent disclosures in datasets, and it seems to me that it’s for the Information Commissioner to do this.
As far as pdf goes – unless we’re asked for it in a specific format, pdf is what gets sent because there are numerous free pdf readers out there for ANY software system – any other type of document may not be readable by people who do not have the appropriate software installed. If requesters want stuff in re-usable format, please, give us a clue as to what format you would like.
Your Southampton report is interesting – but the NHS does not have access to “student volunteers” to keep checks on publications and maintain them. We’re also having to save money despite major restructuring which has cost millions. In principle, I’m all for open data/publish everything. In practice, the resource simply is not there for the NHS to do it properly right now.