Tag Archive for Government

Ten things I love about UK

I’m very conscious, perhaps overly so, of the irony of writing a blog about FOI and openness anonymously. But for the moment at least, I think it remains the best way to do this. The next best thing is to explain a little about where I’m coming from – declare my interests as it were. And as it’s St. Valentine’s Day, what better way than to list the things I love – in no particular order.

1. The Freedom of Information Act

It may be hard to believe sometimes, but despite everything, I am passionate about this piece of legislation, regretted by some but valued by many. That’s why I write this blog. Even when I’m criticising requests or requesters, as I occasionally do, I’m doing so because I fear that irresponsible use of the Act may lead to it being watered down, or that at the very least diminishes its reputation with colleagues. And while people often lament its flaws, I think it’s one of the most open FOI laws in the world. Shame its drafters can’t be more proud of it.

2. The public sector and its employees

I’m constantly dismayed by the portrayal of the public sector and its employees by the media and politicians. It’s not so much a political football as a punchbag. And yes, there are people who earn too much (though not very many), or are lazy, or aren’t very good at their jobs. But guess what? There are in the private sector as well (I know, I’ve worked in both).

Every time a newspaper or an MP decides to take a swipe at a public sector worker or mock a job title that sounds silly to them, they might do well to remember that these are normal people, or in other words, readers and voters. They’re doing something, and meanwhile contributing to the economy, often supporting families, living by all those values that politicians love to espouse.

As one of my readers Tweeted last week, even those “back office” workers that we’re always told are ripe for cuts, are important because they ensure that the police, nurses, doctors, etc. can spend as much time as possible doing what they’re expected to do. If there are less “back office” and “admin” staff, you can pretty much guarantee that those “front-line” workers will be spending more time filling in forms, filing, and less on helping people.

And through it all, whilst being exposed for the crime of claiming a salary by their political masters, threatened with redundancy, and vilified in print, they keep, in the words of Churchill, buggering on. Being inventive. Giving meaningful advice (and, by the way, I’d rather listen to an expert who knows their subject than a politician who has studied the subject for five minutes in the back of their ministerial Jag). Trying to find ways to save money. Making their masters’ vague ideas actually work (and keeping them on the right side of the law). Administering justice. Ensuring those in need receive benefit payments. Getting us to work. Teaching children. Saving lives…

And many of them retain a sense of humour.

3. Politics

Can’t help it. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? The dodging and weaving, the crazy unpredictable deals. The making-historyness of the whole thing. And the sheer grandeur of our political scene. How can you beat the Palace of Westminster as a theatre for our national story? Or City Hall as the goldfish bowl of London politics?

I’m not party political, and I try to keep an open mind. That said, it’s probably fair to say that my politics have moved left of centre over the years. May last year was thrilling, and whilst I may be appalled at some of the consequences, I can’t help gawping on. Bet you can’t either.

4. The BBC

Comedian and songwriter Mitch Benn summed this up so much better than I can, but you know, I do love old Auntie. No doubt she has her faults, but come on, we pay, what? About three quid a week? For often brilliant television and radio which is delivered without interruption from advertisements. For quality impartial journalism, respected the world over. For mind-stretching documentaries that broaden our horizons.

Even its commercial rivals benefit from its existence. Their schedules are made up of programmes that are clearly inspired by the BBC’s work. Their ‘talent’ was often groomed (in the nice way) by the BBC.

It’s got to be one of the very best things about this country and without it we would all be the poorer. I have no objection to paying my licence fee (and frankly would pay more with pleasure). For goodness sake, they brought us…

5. Doctor Who

Yes, FOI Man is a geek. It’s a shock I know.

6. Information professionals

This is for all those librarians, information specialists, archivists, records managers, and of course FOI Officers. What we do has real value, and we shouldn’t stop fighting to make that clear to colleagues, politicians and the media.

I heard of the staff of one library service, threatened with job cuts of two-thirds, who were told by a senior manager that they weren’t needed anymore because of Google. Aside from the crass insensitivity and ignorance of this statement, it really demonstrates the arbitrary nature of some of the cuts that are going on. Instead of basing decisions on considered analysis of our public services, decisions are being made on the basis of managers’ and politicians’ personal prejudices and guesswork.

Sometimes you need people who understand the organisation, who know their subject inside-out, who know where to look, who understand the legal requirements, who can balance them with practical realities. In the Information Age you need the very best scouts to plot your path through the information jungle.

7. The NHS

Can you imagine getting seriously ill, or breaking your leg, and your first thought being “Oh God, did I remember to set up my insurance?” or “I wonder what my bank balance is?”. Thank God we live in the UK and have the NHS. We really should be very proud of it.

8. That things are sometimes very complex

In a few months’ time we’re supposed to be being asked whether we’d like a new voting system. I can already predict the main argument of the ‘No’ campaign. AV will be too complicated for people to understand. Really? Really? Yes, they’ll look you in the eye and tell you that people can’t write 1, 2, 3 in order of preference on a piece of paper.

Complexity is beautiful. The FOI Act could have been drafted to say exactly what information would be disclosed and what wouldn’t. It would have been simpler. But it wasn’t. We’ve got prejudice and public interest tests. We have to make judgments and balance theoretical ideals. It’s often not very easy. But it’s much more interesting and it means that the Act doesn’t stagnate – the boundaries of openness will be constantly in flux.

Current events demonstrate the value of complexity perfectly. Egypt had a very simple political system until last week. Now things will very likely never be simple again. Freedom is complex.

9. The Law

It’s not always convenient. Last week 200-odd MPs (perhaps that should be 200 odd MPs) found it so inconvenient they opted to vote to break it. Funnily enough, quite a few leading politicians around the world take this approach. They’re generally called Dictators.

Freedom is protected by the law. I’ve generally found that judges, despite their reputation, talk a hell of a lot more sense in their judgments than politicians do when they react to them. Next time you hear a judgment reported that makes them huff and puff with indignation, try reading what the judge actually said. He or she will have set out their thought process. It will be based on precedent and existing law. You might not agree with their conclusion, but at least you’ll understand why they reached it. And it will be based on reason and learning, not what will keep a few voters or vested interests in key constituencies happy.

10. And last but not least

She knows who she is. Without her encouragement, support and patience this blog wouldn’t exist.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day. Hope you’re as fortunate as I am today.

The Freedom Bill – some initial thoughts

This morning the Protection of Freedoms Bill 2010-11 was published. This is, rather unsurprisingly, not the same as the Bill proposed by the Liberal Democrats in 2009. There’s no end to the Ministerial veto for a start. (Interestingly, the Freedom Bill website has disappeared, so we’re left with this summary from the Campaign for FOI blog.)

Early days, but I’ve already posted some observations on the FOI amendments included in the Bill on Twitter, so for your convenience, here they are in one place:

  • Information Commissioner weakened, in my view, by one term limit
  • ‘Dataset’ provisions seem very wordy way of saying what s.11 said already – this is what Francis Maude promised way back in October. It’s supposed to force authorities to disclose requested ‘datasets’ in the electronic form stipulated by the requester. Whatever your views on this, the Bill seems a bit wishy-washy on this subject, and in fact doesn’t seem to require much more than is already stipulated by s.11 of the FOI Act (ie public authorities have to comply with wishes of requester “so far as reasonably practicable”)
  • copyright changes look interesting, but why just ‘datasets’? – the one aspect of the ‘dataset’ changes that looks potentially useful is the requirement to allow re-use of disclosed datasets in line with a licence which will be stipulated under the s.45 Code of Practice . This has the potential to clear up the issue that @copyrightgirl commented on in her posts here and here on the blog in recent weeks. But why restrict this to ‘datasets’? If they made provision for re-use of all disclosures, it would resolve the tension between FOI and copyright law for good, especially in relation to things like WhatDoTheyKnow.
  • Publication Schemes – req to publish datasets disclosed. Why not all disclosed info? There are some interesting proposals in terms of Publication Schemes, but again they focus on ‘datasets’. Basically it appears to be introducing mandatory disclosure logs but only for disclosed datasets. Why not make it mandatory to publish all disclosed data? Would help FOI Officers who have been battling for years to get Disclosure Logs past IT managers and web masters who think they upset their nice web design.
  • Gets rid of loophole for companies set up by 2 or more public authorities – good.
  • Martin Rosenbaum of the BBC has commented that he thinks the Bill introduces more freedom for the Information Commissioner in procedural matters – not sure I got that, but may well be true.

So overall, nothing really to write home about. Except I have. One to keep an eye on I think.

Third parties and FOI

Journalist David Higgerson highlighted a case yesterday where the Department for Transport (DfT) had refused a request for detailed information about overcrowding on trains. The exemption applied was s.43 of the FOI Act, which can be used to protect information which would, or would be likely to, prejudice commercial interests.

First off, let’s give credit where its due – DfT should be congratulated on their openness in publishing all their responses to FOI requests online routinely. This probably wouldn’t have come to light if they didn’t do that. Not many public bodies (not even my own) take that approach. And I’d also say that whilst it’s not perfect in its wording, generally speaking, the response is actually pretty detailed and helpful notwithstanding the decision not to disclose all of the information.

But David draws attention to a serious issue. The key reason given by DfT was that the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) had refused permission for details of passenger numbers to be disclosed. DfT are putting together a new dataset which relies on the cooperation of the TOCs, so they were concerned that if they disclosed such data, the TOCs might not help with the new project.

This highlights a key problem for public bodies answering FOI requests. All information we hold is subject to FOI, but not all of it was created by us. In my experience, one of the most common reasons why exemptions are even considered is to avoid offending third parties. And sometimes third parties can be pretty aggressive in making clear that they don’t want the information that they supplied to be disclosed. Often, they just have no understanding of what FOI means for public bodies, even though they are usually informed in advance about the possibility of disclosure, and we try to explain the situation again when requests come in.

Public authorities need to get better at standing up to third parties. In my experience, some are too inclined to just accept the third party’s view that information should be withheld. Government departments in my experience are particularly prone to this. We have to remember that it is our decision in the end, and not the third party’s.

If the Government is serious about openness, it really needs to tackle the attitudes of the organisations that it does business with, especially amongst those private companies that provide services to the public. If they can’t be made to co-operate, they should be at least threatened with being brought under the auspices of FOI. Then they’d understand the situation much more clearly.

The most powerful third parties even attempt (and sometimes succeed) to change the law to avoid their information being disclosed. A few years ago, MPs fed up with their correspondence to local authorities being disclosed in response to FOI requests tried to enact an amendment to the legislation to specifically exempt any correspondence from MPs. Oh, and while they were at it, they tried to sneak in an exemption for both Houses of Parliament. Eventually that proposal was defeated, but only because once it had passed the Commons, their Lordships were too embarrassed to support it any further.

Yesterday, by Statutory Order (following the passing of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act by the last Government), the FOI Act was amended to strengthen the exemption for Communications with the Royal Household (s.37). From now on, public authorities will be able to (and will no doubt be leant on to) use an absolute exemption (ie with no public interest test) to withhold correspondence between the Monarch, the Heir and the second in line to the throne and themselves. So in future nobody will be able to find out if the Prince of Wales is seeking to influence planning decisions or the design of hospitals. This only came about, I suspect, because some public bodies felt that there was a public interest in disclosing such correspondence in the past, and pointed out that in this circumstance, they had to disclose the correspondence. That won’t have been happily received.

Some third parties can be very powerful indeed.

Divided by a common language – personal data and openness

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to travel to New York for a few days’ holiday. Sheltered soul that I am, this was my first visit to the USA.

The whole trip was fabulous, but you’re not here to have my holiday snaps inflicted upon you. The only down point really, as many others have found in recent years, was trying to get into the country.

I’d already had to complete my ESTA (electronic entry visa), and on the plane I was given a Customs Declaration form to fill in. On arrival I stood in line for about an hour whilst we were herded through the cramped arrivals hall and towards one of the immigration officials, sat in their cubicles of bullet-proof glass. Despite the posters promising friendly and courteous staff, when the time came for me to stand in front of one of these officials, he glowered at me suspiciously (fair enough, some might say), barked instructions and interrogated me as to my intentions. I’ve never been on trial, but my first experience of the US made me feel a little like I suspect I would as a defendant in the dock.

Things improved immeasurably from that point on. But the point is that throughout the process of entering the US, I was asked for a great deal of personal information. Now, it may cause you to roll your eyes heavenwards, but I found myself entertained during my long wait in the queue by contemplating a passage of small print on the back of the Customs Declaration form. It read:

“PAPERWORK REDUCTION ACT NOTICE: The Paperwork Reduction Act says we must tell you why we are collecting this information, how we will use it, and whether you have to give it to us…The estimated average burden associated with this collection of information is 4 minutes per respondent or record keeper depending on individual circumstances. Comments concerning the accuracy of this burden estimate and suggestions for reducing this burden should be directed to US Customs and Border Protection…”

This was in exactly the position that UK or European forms would place a Data Protection notice. What I thought was interesting is this. Here in the UK (and across Europe) we are increasingly concerned with what government and other organisations do with the data that they hold about us. We reacted with horror when HMRC lost two CD-ROMs containing details of 25 million families. It seems not a month goes past without the ICO issuing press notices about the latest NHS Trust data breaches, and they can now fine organisations up to half a million pounds in the worst cases. And the metaphorical and political blood that has been spilt over proposals for ID card and NHS patient databases could fill the country’s blood banks for the next decade.

Yet in the US, the equivalent concern is for bureaucracy. All very well and good, we’d all like to see less of that (yes, even us public employees). But that’s apparently the concern that takes priority over privacy. Of course, in limiting paperwork, a side effect may well be that less personal data is collected, but this or the protection of that data, is not the driver over there.

I was reminded of my post-plane perusals this week when I happened across a news article about a US court case reviewing an FOI appeal. In the US they don’t have an Information Commissioner, so anyone appealing against a public authority’s decision has to take the case to court.

The request was from a civil liberties group who wanted to have copies of the images taken by airport scanners. This has become quite a concern of late in the US (as here), as the latest scanners are reputed to reveal in intimate detail the contours of the human body. The judge in the court case upheld the authority’s decision not to disclose the images.

Now this in itself didn’t surprise me. I’d have assumed that if the images really do allow the sort of insight that most people only allow their intimate partner, then there’d be a reasonable argument to withhold the information on personal data or privacy grounds. But the story appeared to suggest that they’d been refused not for those reasons, but on the grounds of national security, as potential terrorists might be able to find ways to fool the scanners through analysis of the images.

This looks like another example to me of where US culture, law and politics is subtly, perhaps significantly, different to ours. They don’t have data protection laws. UK organisations are only allowed to exchange data with US businesses because of something called ‘Safe Harbor’. This means that US businesses can register with the US authorities promising to handle personal data in line with principles similar to our Data Protection Principles. But the only reason they do this is because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do business with European bodies, public or commercial. Importantly, it’s voluntary. It’s a completely different mindset.

So why is this significant? And why am I talking about Data Protection on a blog about FOI?

Well-known freedom of information campaigner and freelance journalist Heather Brooke has a new book out called The Silent State. I’ll be up front and say that I haven’t had chance to read it yet. But by all reports it repeats something that she has said on many occasions before.

Heather is from the US and began her journalistic career there. One of her biggest complaints about public authorities in the UK is that they are secretive about the names and contact details of public employees. Apparently, in her native state the names, job titles, contact details and salaries of all public employees are published on-line. Not just senior executives. Everyone, from the street sweepers to the Chief Executive.

Her argument is that the UK’s culture of secrecy makes it inefficient and bureaucratic. That people hide their ineptitude behind the high crenellated walls of their particular public employer. And of course that things are much better in the US where they are open about who is doing what.

Conservative commentator Peter Oborne has written gushingly about Heather’s agenda. He comments that her connection of secrecy and inefficiency:

“…is a Tory insight and if David Cameron has real courage he should make Heather Brooke’s radical agenda his own.”

I don’t doubt that some public authorities are too secretive, and should be prepared to make more information available (and be less defensive when they receive FOI requests). And personally, I have no problem with my details being made available on my organisation’s website (they are). I could even accept my salary being published.

But I equally understand that some people don’t feel comfortable with that. Perhaps they resent the idea of such a degree of openness. They may see this as yet another ‘punishment’ for the ‘crime’ of taking a job in the public service. But they also may have very good, personal, reasons. Should the individual who has moved on to a new life after escaping an abusive relationship be forced to work in the private sector because they don’t want their former partner to track them down? Should anyone who fiercely defends their privacy be restricted in this way?

Most would agree that publishing details of the most senior and public facing officials is a good thing. But in reality, why would you want to know the name of the street cleaner? If you’re not happy with their work, your local council presumably provides a mechanism to report that. Is the idea that you should be able to directly confront them, vigilante style, if you find a cigarette stub on the pavement outside your house?

We have a tradition in this country of respecting individual freedoms. Our culture and our law recognises the importance of privacy and particularly of how personal data should be handled. There may well be virtue and value in publishing more details about public officials. But before we start to bash public authorities over the head with their perceived secrecy over their employees, we ought to consider what it is that we really want. Do we want our current model which balances the need for government openness with the need for individual privacy? Or do we want to make a significant shift to a US model where protecting personal data is much lower down the agenda?

Is FOI reform a two-way street? Public funding and FOI

On Friday, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, gave a speech on civil liberties which included significant proposals on reform of FOI. The Ministry of Justice simultaneously published more details on their website. One of the most widely expected, but still important, announcements concerned adding to the list of bodies currently covered by FOI.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the higher education admissions service (UCAS) and the Financial Ombudsman service had already been consulted on becoming FOIable (to coin a word), and the necessary statutory instrument will be drawn up in short order. A much longer list of public authorities will now be consulted on joining this far from select band. In addition, bodies jointly funded by public authorities will no longer be able to escape the widening bounds of the Act.

So what is the justification for bodies becoming subject to FOI? It is common for people to say that if bodies receive public funding, they should be open to public scrutiny. Many, if not all, of the bodies proposed for inclusion will fall into this category.

So should it be a two-way street? What if bodies lose public funding? Does that mean that they should be removed from FOI?

Higher education is an example. And to some, quite a persuasive one. Even before the recent cuts, some leading figures in universities were pointing out that most of their funding does not come from the Government. The Registrar of the University of Warwick, speaking on Radio 4’s You and Your’s in October 2010, pointed out that only 25% of that university’s funding came from the public purse (and this is not an unusual figure). How much greater the argument for removing universities from FOI when many will soon receive much less, especially those which do not offer science courses.

The Government would probably argue that despite a reduction in public money, higher education institutions will still receive some government funding. And they have been very careful with their language in making these latest announcements. Mr Clegg’s words on the subject were:

“if an organisation’s behaviour and decisions have clear consequences for the public good, people must be able to see right into the heart of them.”

And the MOJ announcement talks about “public bodies which perform functions of a public nature”. Given this, I think it’s highly unlikely that the Government will seriously consider removing universities and other higher education institutions from FOI.

That said, with a Government keen to move many public functions outside of the public purse and into the ‘Big Society’, I wonder if we will hear more calls for FOI reform in the other direction.