FOI requires guts not restrictions

FOI Man thinks senior public employees and their political masters need more guts to make the right decisions, not more restrictions to prevent them from having to.

Civil Service World brings us the thoughts of a civil servant who was involved with the drafting of the Act. Perhaps with an eye on her career prospects, she takes this opportunity to say that she’d have done things differently if she was doing it again (which kind of ignores the fact that it isn’t actually up to the civil servants to decide what the law should be).

According to Ms Collins Rice, given a blank sheet of paper (or parchment) she’d put in more absolute exemptions, a lower cost limit, a different fees and charging system, and a different form of oversight (which pretty much describes the Government’s original Bill before Parliament exercised its powers resulting in the Act we know and love today). Presumably there’d be no Information Commissioner or at least one with very limited powers and we’d have to pay for requests in Ms Collins Rice’s ideal Act. Our current Act has its weaknesses, but it is far more progressive and open than the legislation that this civil servant would like to have seen.

Why does Ms Collins Rice think that FOI is deficient? Because of the “effortful mental process of evaluating what might happen if I gave this out” that feels “like quite a difficult administrative burden for government.”

As an FOI Officer I’ve often heard senior colleagues moan about FOI in similar terms. And like Ms Collins Rice, I sometimes have some sympathy for them and the occasional difficulties that the Act can cause them in carrying out their duties. But unlike her, I think that the answer to that is for public employees and politicians to adjust. Not all FOI requests are burdensome and difficult to make a decision about. Some – a minority – are. And the extra resource and effort entailed is a small price to pay for improved accountability and scrutiny of decisions that affect us, the public.

Too often public sector colleagues and politicians forget the bigger picture when it comes to FOI. And in my experience often the difficulties are self-made. If your FOI Officer or legal adviser is telling you that information should be disclosed, then why spend weeks or months more agonising over whether to follow their advice? The chances are that what you think might be terribly controversial and devastating for the organisation will turn out to be of little interest to the outside world. And in your gut you probably know that. Listen to your gut, or failing that, your FOI Officer’s gut. To borrow a phrase beloved of a friend of mine, those in charge need to “grow a pair”. It’ll save them a lot of time and money.

2 comments

  1. Dear FOI man,

    I’m responding to your comment that Civil Service World is “a publication not known for its love of FOI” – your implication being that we have some sort of bias against it.

    CSW has a balanced approach to FOI, as it does to all policies, and represents both sides of the story. We listen to senior officials who have concerns and accurately report their views; equally, in our next issue we have a two page interview with the Information Commissioner putting forwards the other side.

    Yours,

    Joshua Chambers
    Deputy and Online Editor
    Civil Service World

    • FOIMan says:

      Joshua
      I’m sorry if that’s how it sounded. The few times I’ve read articles about FOI in CSW they have been fairly negative in tone – to be fair I suspect that’s because that’s been the view of the people being interviewed. On reflection, that line is a bit unfair and I’ll reword it.
      Look forward to reading your interview with the Information Commissioner.
      Regards
      Paul