Tag Archive for Transparency

Local Government? FOI is the least of your problems

FOIMan reviews the current regulatory state of Town Hall Transparency.

I declare this meeting open!

I declare this meeting open!

Freedom of Information (FOI) regularly receives a bad press from public authorities, and in particular from the Local Government Association, who like to highlight “wacky” FOI requests (which, as others have made clear, may not in actual fact be that wacky). The funny thing is though, a cursory glance at local authority transparency regulation makes it pretty clear that FOI is the least of town halls’ worries.

I was recently asked to provide training in the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations  2014. Now, in all honesty it’s quite some time since I worked in a local authority, so whilst I was aware of the regulations in a very broad sense, I was glad of the opportunity to spend some time researching the current scope of local government transparency requirements. Once I had delved a little deeper I began to wonder why FOI attracted all the ire.

The Openness Regs are just the tip of a large and glassy iceberg. The bit that got most people’s attention when they were launched by DCLG Secretary of State Eric Pickles earlier this year was the requirement on councils to allow local people to film council meetings. In fact, the regulations also add to the growing list of information that DCLG expects local authorities to publish.

Just this year we’ve seen a new Transparency Code which for the most part is now mandatory in England. English councils have to publish details of staff members earning over £50,000; contracts over £5,000; time spent on trade union activities; all council property; grants to various organisations; how much they collect in parking fines; and much else besides. They’re encouraged to adopt the Open Government Licence for all this, so that people can download it and use it however they see fit.

Since the mid-1980s, councils have been expected to allow the public access to papers of their meetings – agenda, minutes, reports. Until recently this just meant allowing them to pick up copies from council offices. But more recent legislation means that papers relating to executive meetings must also be published on the local authority website (“if it has one” – cue councils up and down the country rushing to dismantle their internet connection). “Key” decisions must be advertised 28 days in advance, as must matters that are to be discussed in private. The decisions taken by members and officers under executive powers must be published, and now, through the Openness Regs, the same is true of many decisions taken by council officers under delegated powers. They must also publish “background papers” that were used in reaching the decision.

You may be thinking that this is still very different from the obligations under FOI though. People can’t request that papers be sent to them. Except they can – as long as they’re prepared to pay for photocopying, printing and postage, the regulations of the last couple of years require the council to provide the copies. Bear in mind that public authorities can charge the same for information released under FOI. The similarities don’t end there. Just as it is a criminal offence to block access to information requested under FOI, council officers can find themselves facing a charge if they attempt to stop you accessing council meeting papers.

The good news is that if councils comply with these requirements, they won’t have to answer FOI requests – most of the time – for the same information. Section 21 of FOI provides an exemption where information is already reasonably accessible to the requester, and this applies in situations where an existing legal requirement provides access. Councils can even refuse to provide the information in a format specified by the requester unless the requester’s situation – for example, a disability – means that the information is not reasonably accessible to them in the published format.

So even if FOI was abolished tomorrow, town halls up and down the country would still find themselves having to publish significant volumes of information, and perhaps even having to answer requests. In the meantime, as the end of FOI does not seem to be on anyone’s agenda at the moment, town hall transparency can at least save them some work in answering FOI requests as well as keeping Mr Pickles at bay (not to mention avoiding some embarrassing judicial review outcomes).

Get in touch if you’d like to know more about my in-house training in Local Government Transparency.

How transparent is the Gov.UK website?

FOI Man questions whether a website is useful if its users can’t actually find what they’re looking for.

It’s been described as “the Paul Smith of websites”.  “It creates a benchmark for which all international government websites can be judged on,” said comedian and man-in-a-boat Griff Rhys Jones. An “example of world-class design talent” added our Prime Minister. These were the plaudits heaped onto the government’s new one-stop shop website gov.uk in April when it was announced that the site had won the Design of the Year Award for 2013.

Now call me conservative-minded (with a small c, mind), but I think that a good design shouldn’t just look pretty, but should function well. A website of this kind is there to help people find things and to deliver public services online. Given that the site wasn’t even complete by April, it seems slightly odd to me that it could receive such commendations before it was anywhere near being in a position to achieve its aims.

I’m sure that it does some great things (and no doubt saves some money), but what’s always worried me since the Government announced its plans in 2010 is what seems obvious to me. It’s easier to find a needle of information in a small bundle of hay than it is to find it in a haystack. What’s more, much as the Government clearly wanted to foster a sense of one single Government rather than lots of Government departments, I think it will take more than a new website to change centuries of tradition that has led most of us to associate certain activities with particular departments.

There’s clearly been a great deal of effort put into the gov.uk website, and I don’t write this as a criticism of those who’ve tried their best to create a useful interface (from what I’ve seen on Twitter with a great deal of commitment and passion). But the concept of one big website seems to me to have problems that will take a long time to overcome, if indeed they ever can be.

For example, try finding guidance on FOI now. The MoJ used to publish helpful guidance, and you can still find it via the old MoJ site. But try using the search function on gov.uk and you’ll end up with the MoD’s FOI guidance and a Wales Office file plan. I might be missing something, but then that’s the point, its supposed to be easy for people to find things.

And I’m not the only one. Here’s Patrick Wintour of the Guardian on Twitter today:

Plenty of people agreed with his sentiments. I’ve heard civil servants complain about its inflexibility and inability to find information that had previously been readily available to all as well. Where they could easily provide access to reports and guidance before by sending a link to the place where it had always been, now they struggle to find it themselves let alone be in a position to help others.

Maybe these are just early hiccups, and we all just need to get used to the new way of things. But I think it’s yet another reminder that putting lots of data in one big pool can lead to unintended consequences.