Tag Archive for cost of FOI

FOI: Cutting the Cost

FOIMan discusses ways to cut the cost of Freedom of Information compliance.

Image of scissorsLast week I ran a workshop at PDP’s annual Freedom of Information Conference on managing the burden of FOI requests. This is something that I give a lot of thought to. As a supporter of, and occasional campaigner for, FOI, I don’t want to see the legislation weakened. As someone who used to have to manage FOI compliance though, I have some sympathy with practitioners and others in the public sector who complain about the burden that answering requests impose. In a so-called “age of austerity”, councils, educational establishments, health trusts, and even government departments are having to juggle answering requests with their other obligations and duties, whilst simultaneously seeing their budgets cut.

The recent FOI Commission report, and the government’s response, will have disappointed many in the public sector who perhaps hoped for a reduction in the cost limit (the Commission proposed raising it), more activities to be included in estimates of cost (the Commission came to no firm conclusion), or for fees that might dampen the volume of requests submitted (the Commission rejected this option).

freedom-of-information-graphic-smallMy argument is that the FOI Act already provides several facilities to manage the burden of FOI requests, many of which are not used to their full potential. In addition, the administration of FOI could be more efficient in many if not most public bodies. Put these together, and there are opportunities to cut the cost of FOI to the public sector without damaging the right to know. If you weren’t able to attend last week’s workshop, I’ve also written an article for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal, which you can read here – Freedom of Information: Cutting the Cost.

The cost of public relations vs FOI – research

FOIMan writes about his recent research into the cost of public relations to central government compared to the cost of FOI.

freedom-of-information-graphic-smallThis month’s article for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal expands on my previous posts here (and here) on research into the cost of public relations as opposed to the cost of FOI. It seems timely to make this available now given that this issue has been mentioned in evidence given to Labour’s alternative FOI Commission this week. The article explores how I conducted the research, what my findings were, but also the way that government departments handled my FOI requests. Suffice it to say that central government would do well to review its own procedures and practices before reforming the legislation.

Rumours reported in the newspapers this week suggest that the government is getting cold feet about the FOI Commission and any proposals to weaken the Act. Perhaps the 30,000 responses to the Commission’s Call for Evidence, many of which sought to defend the legislation, have weakened its resolve.

PR Costs – the responses

FOIMan brings you the responses from government departments to his recent FOI request on public relations.

A comparison of communications v FOI spending in a selection of departments

A comparison of communications v FOI spending in a selection of departments

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the outcome of my FOI requests to central government departments on their expenditure on public relations activities. At the time I promised to publish the actual responses so that you can see for yourself the answers received.

So here are all the responses received to date in one handy document. As will be noted, some departments were very helpful – others considerably less so.

Notably the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Wales Office were prompt in responding and provided straightforward answers to these questions. Several others were less quick but provided thorough and helpful responses.

The Treasury seemed to think that there was an exemption for information not held in one place. DWP don’t seem to be able to track their expenditure efficiently enough to provide a figure within 24 hours of staff time. Some have still to answer – and in some cases haven’t even acknowledged the original request.

The chart above compares communications and FOI expenditure for a selection of departments. I’ve intentionally left off the Ministry of Defence as their £80 million on communications (versus £641,000 on FOI) distorts the chart beyond all usefulness.

As some have suggested, I will of course be using my findings in my response to the FOI Commission’s consultation, and feel free to do so if you are responding.

FOI costs, sure – but nowhere near as much as PR

FOIMan asks why there is an FOI Commission when there isn’t, say, a PR Commission.

150millionv1After months of silence, the FOI Commission established in July has finally issued a consultation document. As the Campaign for Freedom of Information has commented, its content strongly suggests a desire to fillet the FOI Act of all changes made at the insistence of Parliament in 1999/2000. It is looking at whether the Information Commissioner should be able to overturn decisions or just make recommendations, for example, and whether more exemptions should be made absolute. Scary stuff to anyone who believes that FOI fulfils an essential role in holding government to account.

One area that the Commission is clearly examining is the cost of FOI. The report trots out all the figures that every inquiry has ever come up with – all of which have had questionable credibility. Government wants to cut cost of FOI – Government comes up with figures which show FOI to be as expensive as possible.

It isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time, that public officials have complained about the expense of FOI. And nobody seriously disputes that the administration of answering correspondence from the public, and in the case of FOI, locating information, costs money – occasionally a lot of money.

However, it is the context that really matters. All activities carried out by public bodies cost money. Why should FOI be the one singled out by officials? Especially given the benefits it clearly delivers and its relatively inexpensive nature compared to other expenditure.

FOI is just one way that government and citizen can interact. There are two primary differences between FOI and other government communications. The first is that it has statutory backing – public bodies have to answer requests (though if they think that removing such backing would stop people asking the questions, they may well be very disappointed). Secondly, it involves the public identifying specific things that they want to know – rather than officials deciding what they want the public to know.

The question then is – why aren’t these other forms of communication receiving attention? How much do they cost?

Back in July I submitted an FOI request to all the central government departments asking for just this. How much in total did they spend on communications in 2014/15? This was to include press office functions, external communications and marketing activities.

Now I don’t actually make that many requests myself. My experience of FOI is primarily as a practitioner – answering the requests, not making them. Although I’m perhaps more sympathetic to those dealing with requests than most, I was still very disappointed by the performance of some departments in responding to what was a relatively straightforward request. I’m still waiting for a response from several of them 6 weeks after the deadline has passed. I’m going to write more about my experiences in making this request in a future post.

Nonetheless, I now have enough data to provide a good indication of the answer to my question. How much do government departments spend on communications?

First, the caveats. The departments often didn’t hold the information in the form I asked for. They often provided the nearest useful figure – the expenditure by the Public Affairs directorate for example, which might well include matters not relevant to my question (although it is even more likely that it excludes some activities that we might well feel belong properly within these figures). It is possible that different departments interpreted what should be included differently. And many if not all of the figures provided included a wide range of communications activities including internal communications (which for a number of government departments, taken broadly, can be significant – consider for example how much the MoD spends on communicating with members of the armed forces). These figures are not going to be scientific. However, they do give us a strong indication of how much government spends on communications with the public, the Press, and its own employees.

Spending by government departments on press, communications and marketing in 2014/15

Spending by government departments on press, communications and marketing in 2014/15

Bearing all of this in mind, take a look at this chart, which details how much each department spends on communications according to their responses to my request. You will see that significant sums were spent in 2014/15. In total, and excluding the departments that haven’t as yet provided figures, £150.7 million was spent on press, communications and marketing by central government departments in 2014/15. It is likely that the actual figure far exceeds this, given that some of the largest government departments have so far failed to respond.

At the start of this post I asserted the importance of context when considering public expenditure. So I’ve also provided figures for the cost of FOI in 2014. In total, I estimate that FOI cost these same government departments £5.7 million. I didn’t obtain these figures through my request – instead I used the

Spending on FOI in 2014 v spending on comms in 2014/15 (as disclosed) by government departments

Spending on FOI in 2014 v spending on comms in 2014/15 (as disclosed) by government departments

government’s published figures on FOI request volumes and multiplied these by the figure the Ministry of Justice’s own research suggested was the average cost of FOI requests in 2012. They’re not perfect – they don’t account for inflation since 2012 for a start – but they do give a realistic impression of the true cost of handling FOI requests. And compared to the cost of other communications – including what is popularly known as “spin” – FOI is not remotely expensive. Yet it is the cost of FOI which is attracting focussed attention from a specially established commission.

I’ll publish the full data in due course for your interest, but for the time being I thought you’d be interested in the headline figures. I should also say that at this moment in time, I’m still waiting to hear from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Work and Pensions and the Treasury refused my request and I am waiting for the outcome of internal reviews.

Hands Off

FOIMan has some suggestions for reducing the cost of FOI in government departments.

Whitehall Street SignWe often hear senior civil servants, ministers and others complain about the cost of FOI. No one can deny that it has an impact on the resources of public bodies, though estimates on its cost vary in terms of the figures involved, often depending on the argument the person citing them is advancing. It seems likely, given Michael Gove’s recent comments, that the current government will attempt to amend the rules to reduce the level at which requests can be refused.

However, often what causes problems for those answering requests and delays responses to those making them is the public body’s own procedures. If they are needlessly cumbersome or involve highly-paid individuals unnecessarily then the cost of processing FOI requests is being inflated beyond what is required. Here’s a perfect example.

Last night at about 11pm, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Greg Hands MP, tweeted:

Am about to answer a Freedom of Information (FOI) request as to how many FOI requests the Treasury has received. #FOIMadness.

I’m in complete agreement with the Chief Secretary. This is FOI madness.

What is a cabinet minister doing anywhere near such a routine FOI enquiry? I can completely understand why they might want to be kept in the loop on politically sensitive requests or those directly affecting themselves, but the number of FOI requests received? FOI teams record this information routinely, and it is published by the Ministry of Justice on a quarterly basis. If the Treasury really felt this request was a waste of time, they could quite properly refuse it on the basis that the data is otherwise available. It only requires a link to the relevant page to be provided. (Here they are – I just googled them and found them in less than a minute).

And of course, far from being a mad question to ask, it’s a very sane one if you are wanting to show that FOI is working, or indeed if, like I suspect Mr Hands does, you want to illustrate its burden. If Mr Hands wants to know about every FOI request received, then why shouldn’t interested parties outside the Treasury?

Anecdotally, I understand that when civil servants complain about the work involved in answering FOI requests, it is not so much the work required by the Act itself that causes the problems. No, it is the needlessly complex bureaucracy established to satisfy the desires of permanent secretaries and ministers to have control and oversight of what should be routine transactions between government and governed.

What’s particularly ironic about Mr Hands’ exclamation is that the Treasury is supposed to be leading the way on reducing the cost of government. Departments are meant to be reducing the deficit, partly by identifying efficiency measures. Involving the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the processing of routine FOI requests does not appear to be the most efficient way to manage them, or the valuable time of the minister himself. Perhaps a more hands off approach ought to be adopted by the Treasury’s ministers?