Tag Archive for FOI Commission

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.

Safe space under threat?

An FOIMan info-graphic.

Chart showing ICO decisions on s35 by Cabinet Office

Last week an FOI Commission was set up by the government, and one of its aims is to consider “whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development…”. The section 35 exemption described in the last Exemption Index post can only be used by central government and it is designed for exactly that purpose. The Commission may find the image above helpful in reaching a judgment.

Incidentally, the three decisions that were overturned were refusals to disclose:

  • the number of times the “Reducing Regulation Committee” has met;
  • minutes of Cabinet Meetings relating to the 2003 invasion of Iraq;
  • and information relating to the takeover of Rowntree’s in 1988.

Civil servants who fear their advice to Ministers on important current issues will be disclosed are overestimating the power of FOI…

Update (27 July 2015)

The post above was a bit of an experiment, prepared in a hurry. It was only afterwards that I realised that the figures here are just the tip of the iceberg.

If you look at the Ministry of Justice’s annual reports on government FOI performance, you can see how many FOI requests were received by the Cabinet Office over a comparable period (it would be difficult to directly correlate the two sets of statistics, but for these purposes the five year period 2010-2014 should be close enough). You can also see how many times the Cabinet Office applied the section 35 exemption over this period:

Year |Requests received|s.35 used

2010    1176                     75

2011    1679                     115

2012    1607                     103

2013    1759                     79

2014    1660                     111

Total    7881                     483

In other words, the use of the exemption for policy development and formulation, protecting the safe space which the government believes to be under threat, went unchallenged 93% of the time. The three cases that the Commissioner overturned represent approximately 0.6% of the use of s.35 by the Cabinet Office. (Taking into account the partially overturned cases, it rises to 1.5%).

I should also say that the reason I selected the Cabinet Office was that they use this exemption more than any other government department.

Commission to look at FOI (and a move to the Cabinet Office)

FOIMan comments on the announcement of a new FOI Commission and a change to the way that FOI is managed within government.

MOJ and Cab Office signs

FOI is on the move

Concern has been expressed here and elsewhere at the appointment of Michael Gove as Justice Secretary. We feared what he might do to FOI, given that his past involvement with the Act had been fairly acrimonious.

Well…there’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news is that Michael Gove is no longer responsible for FOI. The bad news is that responsibility for FOI within government is moving to the Cabinet Office. Which, if their record in answering requests is anything to go by, may well be worse.

This was merely the postscript though to a written statement laid in Parliament by Lord Bridges, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office. The big announcement (after the now obligatory claim to be the “most transparent government in the world”™) was that a new Commission is to be established to review FOI, after all:

after more than a decade in operation it is time that the process is reviewed, to make sure it’s working effectively.

Which sounds convincing until you recall that that was the justification for the post-legislative scrutiny carried out by the Justice Select Committee in 2012. That committee inquiry found little evidence of a chilling effect, made limited recommendations in respect of the cost of FOI, and concluded that “The Freedom of Information Act has been a significant enhancement of our democracy.” It is hard not to see this new review as an attempt to keep going until the government gets the answer it wants.

Such an impression is reinforced by the membership of the Commission. It has cross-party membership to give the impression of balance but includes Jack Straw, a man who has made no secret of his regrets over the legislation he introduced, a former Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, Lord Burns, and Lord Howard of Lympne – David Cameron’s predecessor as Conservative leader and a man so disinclined to answer questions that Jeremy Paxman notoriously had to ask him the same question twelve times.

It seems clear that the government is determined to weaken FOI. The Commission is due to report in November which does not allow for much consultation in the meantime.

The Information Commissioner has issued an initial response to the announcement. It is hard to disagree with its sentiments:

The Act is not without its critics, but in providing a largely free and universal right of access to information, subject to legitimate exceptions, we believe the freedom of information regime is fit for purpose.

If you oppose any weakening of FOI, the best thing you can do is to donate to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.