Tag Archive for Liberal Democrat

What’s wrong with FOI?

FOI Man makes the case for and against FOI and more transparency – what do you think?

It’s very easy for an FOI Officer to find fault with FOI. But hopefully regular readers will have picked up by now that I support FOI and moves towards openness in the public sector.

Unlike some, I don’t have any beef with particular groups who use FOI. Let’s look at the usual suspects.

Of course businesses use it to draw up contact lists for marketing, or to build databases which they will then sell at profit. It’s their right, and those who promote FOI in Government think this is a “good thing”. It is a mechanism that allows information collected or created at public expense to stimulate the economy. It is a strong justification of FOI in a largely market-based economy. It is why Conservative, as much as Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters, feel able to support openness initiatives.

Students use it to research their degree projects. So what? It’s good that they have the nous to use a facility such as FOI. We only have to provide what we have and if the cost is excessive we have an answer to that. It’s frankly not true that, as some would have it, we have to do their work for them – if information is publicly available to them, we just have to point them in the right direction and if necessary cite the exemption for information that is otherwise accessible.

It’s a good thing that journalists use FOI. I’d rather see stories based on evidence that I’ve helped provide than see badly researched sensationalism in the papers. Surely I’m not the only FOI Officer that gets a buzz when I see something I’ve provided mentioned in the Press? I sympathise with those who have become jaded because of the attitude of some (not all, or even most) journalists, and the way that some disclosures have been presented, but the answer is to remain positive and open, not to become defensive. Otherwise we just reinforce negative attitudes to the public sector in the media.

Users of WhatDoTheyKnow are using a service to make requests. It’s marginally easier to make a request using it than sending an email. Some will abuse that ease, but that’s going to happen with any route made available. And by engaging with those who work for and with WDTK, we have an opportunity to encourage responsible behaviour amongst requesters.

My point is that we can’t have a right and then quibble about who’s “allowed” to use it. And FOI is an important right. Whether we like it or not, it has become an internationally recognised badge of a free and democratic society. It’s as much about demonstrating our aspirations as a modern and progressive country as it is about accountability and transparency. This is one reason that I was disappointed by Tony Blair’s admittance in his autobiography that he considered FOI a mistake. If that’s true, that’s not only hindsight, but also short sight.

That said, of course, it’s very easy for supporters and users of FOI to become blinkered. One of the vaguely articulated aims of this blog is to demonstrate the impact that the legislation, and people’s use of it, has on public authorities and the services that they provide. It is neither perfect nor pain-free. And maintaining it, somewhere down the line, means choosing between FOI and provision of other services.

I’ve said previously that I am irritated by statements such as “it’s our information”. Aside from the fact that it is legally inaccurate, it is hopelessly impractical. Information is collected by public bodies so that they can provide the services that some or all of us rely on. Often, the provision of those services will be compatible with, and may even be served by, disclosure of the collected information to the public. But on occasion, it just isn’t possible, and it wouldn’t be in our interests (as a society) to do so. It’s not that I view Government as always benevolent and paternal, or take a view that we should accept what we’re given without question. But I do accept that at least some of the time, things work better without me or others knowing every last detail. If only because the physical means of disseminating that level of information will get in the way of the provision of essential services.

If FOI and other transparency initiatives are going to work, they have to be managed as a process. That means, I’m afraid, refusing requests that will cost too much. Recognising that some people do abuse the privilege and turning them away. And using exemptions where we have concerns over the impact of disclosure of certain information. It means thinking carefully about the resource implications (I know, dirty words in the public sector at the moment) of more transparency. I think it also means looking at how transparency and FOI can contribute to the wider aims of the public sector. It has to be more obvious to public servants what the point of openness is, beyond satisfying curiosity. Can it help us make the savings expected of us? Are there ways that it can be built into our processes to make them more (and not less) effective? What are the wider benefits to our society?

So what do you think? Do you have any ideas about the future of FOI and how it can be made to work better? I’m particularly interested in hearing your constructive comments on FOI and transparency (rather than the knee-jerk reactions that we’re all prone to when we feel very strongly about something). Let me know by commenting here, or via Twitter (@foimanuk).

FOI Man at Large: the DPO Conference

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend the Information Commissioner’s Data Protection Officers Conference in Manchester. Don’t be misled by the name though – there was plenty to entertain us FOI obsessives.

From the keynote speech from Lord McNally, the Lib Dem Minister of State in the Ministry of Justice, through to the Commissioner’s closing remarks, this was a conference that aimed to fully integrate the Commissioner’s Data Protection and FOI duties. So what was there that caught the eye on FOI?

It was clear from Lord McNally that support – and opposition – for FOI and openness issues is cross-party within the Coalition. He spoke of his surprise at finding himself on the same side as Francis Maude and Eric Pickles in meetings.

In questions, it became clear however that there was some dispute within Government over whether FOI should be extended to the private sector when it provides public services. Some in Government are sceptical as they argue that this would deter companies from bidding for Government contracts. From the tone of the Minister’s response it appeared that there is some fierce debate going on in Government on this very issue. Interestingly, Graham Smith of the ICO later argued that the private sector was effectively covered under the existing Act, as FOI continues to cover services provided on behalf of public bodies.

Lord McNally stated that the changes to the Information Commissioner’s role proposed in the Protection of Freedoms Bill were designed to strengthen the independence of the Commissioner. The Commissioner himself welcomed them later in the day, though he did suggest that if the Commissioner is only to serve one term, that term ought to be longer.

The Orders bringing ACPO and UCAS under FOI will be laid at some point from October this year. My guess, based on nothing in particular (other than neatness), would be that the aim would be for the order to come into force on 1 January 2012, but perhaps it will take effect instantly. I know that ACPO have some excellent people helping them prepare for this, and I’m sure it’s the same picture at UCAS.

Lord McNally also spoke about the changes to the 30 year rule for Public Records. He explained that the long lead in time is because the move to a 20 year rule is an expensive exercise.

Post-legislative scrutiny of FOI is seen by the Minister as an important step after 6 years of the Act. The fact that issues will be aired in a public forum will help in developing proposals to amend the Act further.

We also heard from Katie Davis of the Cabinet Office. It was clear from Katie’s presentation, as from the Minister’s speech, that the Government really does attach great importance to opening up public data. The Government’s aim is to be the most open and accountable government in the world. She explained that the Government’s Transparency Board, chaired by Francis Maude, was challenging assumptions across Whitehall. Its membership is certainly impressive – as well as ministers, it includes luminaries such as Professor Nigel Shadbolt (whose Southampton University home launched their open data repository this week) and Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of a little thing called the world wide web). It was good in questions to hear her comment that Local Government is leading the way on transparency.

A question mark still remains over the impact of open data initiatives on the general right of access under FOI. Senior figures within the Information Commissioner’s Office remain as sceptical as many of us FOI Officers as to whether bulk disclosures will lead to reduced numbers of FOI requests.

Graham Smith, Director of FOI at the ICO, struck a cautious note. He commented that FOI was certainly embedded in the public sector; everyone knows they have to comply, but whether they want to is very much another matter. There is a culture of compliance rather than openness at present, in his view. The Government’s transparency agenda is very much welcomed by the ICO. Graham spoke of a lack of political direction on openness in the past which has contributed to lack of progress in changing the culture.

An interesting point raised by Graham was the fact that our FOI legislation was very much designed with paper record-keeping systems in mind. Now that much of the work of Government is carried out electronically, does that affect the effectiveness of the Act? Finally, he observed that the private sector appeared to be ‘waking up’ to FOI. Not just in terms of using it, but in realising the implications of FOI for their dealings with the public sector.

Later in the day, there was the message that public sector bodies shouldn’t be afraid to apply the provisions for vexatious and repetitious requests where necessary. Similarly aggregation of requests when estimating costs. The ICO will be supportive when looking at these cases where it is clear that requesters are making significant numbers of requests or are harassing authorities. It was clear that this attitude was coloured in part by the ICO’s own experience with some requesters! Public bodies should also be careful to protect personal details of their employees – in many cases, these details will still be protected by the Data Protection Act and section 40 ought to be utilised.

The Commissioner raised a laugh at the end of the day when, following his best impression of the former Prime Minister expressing his regret over FOI, he exclaimed, “Tony, it wasn’t about you!”. He reminded FOI Officers that we should be on the side of Dr Samuel Johnson – a famous exponent of openness – and not that of Cardinal Richelieu, who believed that secrecy was the first requirement of Government.

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.

How Pro-FOI is the Coalition Government?

This week, we’ve heard about Conservative proposals to extend FOI. But apparently, that’s not all. The Lib Dem Minister responsible for FOI has indicated that the extensions may go even further:

“what the coalition has committed itself to is an examination of how the Freedom of Information Act has worked, where it could be extended within its present powers and where it might be extended by primary legislation.” (Source, Campaign for FOI blog)

We’ve seen in recent months several announcements about openness. So is this Government more open than the last? And how long can it last? Yesterday I received a message via Twitter from one of my readers directing me to Sir Humphrey’s thoughts on the matter.

Seriously though, some observations. I think we need to give the new government a chance to show its hand on FOI and openness. There is a difference between choosing to publish all expenditure over £500 say, and having to answer requests made under the general right of access under FOI. It sounds very open to publish information pro-actively (and it is certainly something to be encouraged), but the public body still retains some control. It knows what information will be published and can design its processes and decisions around that.

The important thing about making a Freedom of Information request is that you, the citizen, choose what to ask about. Politicians and their advisors who may happily embrace the concept of open government, as long as they can choose what to be open about, go into the biggest flaps when confronted by an FOI request, exactly because they might have to disclose something that they’d rather not. I know – I’ve seen this happen. So I’ll be interested to see not just how much information the new Government is prepared to make freely available, but how readily they respond to individual requests under FOI. The experience of the Other Taxpayers’ Alliance is not encouraging.

There is, of course, a problem with extending FOI. It’s one of the great myths of FOI that it doesn’t cost anything. The Labour Government countered Conservative arguments (during the passing of the Bill through Parliament) that FOI would be an expensive burden by arguing that public authorities would be expected to deal with FOI requests out of their existing resources. That clearly hasn’t proved to be true, but resources for dealing with FOI requests are limited. Heather Brooke used FOI to compare spending on FOI with spending on public relations by police forces in the UK, and not surprisingly found that there were rather fewer FOI Officers in the UK than Press and Marketing Officers. It’s interesting that the very people who call loudest for cuts to public services are often the very same people that demand their rights (and extensions to their rights) to obtain information from those services.

So, like every public servant in the country, I say to the Government, put your money where your mouth is. If you want more openness, support your FOI Officers. And if you think that by pro-actively publishing information you will cut down on FOI requests, I suggest you take a look at this blog entry about the OpenlyLocal website. One-click FOI requests. I suspect I’ll be coming back to that one…

Personally, I’m a supporter of openness and certainly have no desire to see FOI weakened in any way. But any extension has got to recognise the practicalities – if you’re going to ask public authorities to do more, you can’t then take away resources, and in fact you may have to add to them. You only have to look at the Information Commissioner’s backlog of complaints over the last few years to see how meaningless rights are without the resources in place to deliver and enforce them.

Thanks for your interest this week – well over a thousand hits in week one. Do feel free to comment via the blog or twitter (@foimanuk) on any of the issues I raise here.