Freedom of Information, or ‘freedom to fish’?

I’d like to share with you two views on our Freedom of Information legislation, which is the subject of some serious discussions about its future use.

The Guardian has today published a leader in defence of the Freedom of Information Act, saying that any proposed move to restrict its application would be ‘a retrograde step’.

This is in response to Parliamentary considerations on possible reform of the Act and mentions a report from the Ministry of Justice into the volume of requests dealt with by Government departments. It’s interesting that the leader states that the report suggests dealing with FoI requests is ‘increasingly onerous’, when no such language is used in the document.

Towards the end of the editorial, it says:

“However, in the seven years since it came into force, the act has shed light on data the authorities did not choose to reveal. FOI enabled the Guardian to uncover details of the wildly varying death rates after vascular surgery, and the number of Afghan civilians killed by British forces in Afghanistan. The tribunal affirmed its importance in facilitating investigative journalism. At a time when serious, well-sourced reporting is at a premium, undermining FOI would be a retrograde step.”

Contrast this to the recent views expressed by those on the front line, by the good people at We Love Local Government, who liken the Act to a ‘lazy journalists charter‘. Their view is that it is being abused by journalists and lobby groups who are out on widespread fishing expeditions looking for nuggets on the cost of New Year’s Eve fireworks, for example.

In a final flurry of its own, the correspondent writes:

“Every council budget is being squeezed and services cut; the Eurozone is about to collapse, the economy is struggling, we have a housing crisis and an unemployment crisis. Local authorities are making any number of controversial decisions every day and staff are losing their jobs and the best you can do is ask about nativity plays and Christmas lights?!?

“Are you kidding me?”

Where do I sit on this debate? Well, I’ve made some comments on the WLLG blog that should provide a clue. It may seem unusual for a PR person, who is concerned about reputation management, to back the Act, but I’m a strong supporter (honestly!). I would go further by asking public bodies to routinely publish as much detail on items of business as possible. Why not publish details of the Christmas lights budget as a matter of course? If they were published, councils would spend less time on FoI requests as they could signpost people to information already in the public domain and it may reduce extravagance in this area as a result. The Government is moving in this direction and is making positive strides on the transparency agenda. Making FoI more restrictive in this context would appear out of step with the current direction of travel.

But, it can’t be right that public bodies must spend hours – and in some cases, days – dealing with repeated requests for information asking little more than the previous five or six, or those spuriously sent to every council in the land which are often connected to little more than a ‘hit and hope’ exercise.

Crucially, the motive behind a request is not a factor which can influence a decision on whether to meet it or not; so the fact that it’s a journalist or The Taxpayers’ Alliance who is asking for the information is not something that can be taken into account. This is right. But the perceived abuse of the Act needs to be taken seriously in the context of any proposals to change it.

In doing so, I hope the Freedom of Information Act will become an even stronger tool in the future.

5 thoughts on “Freedom of Information, or ‘freedom to fish’?

  1. You are of course right Ben. There is a culture of scepticism in public sector which has led to a starting position of holding back information unless asked for it. We know as good PRs that this can do you few favours in the longer germ reputation protection game. I am pro transparency and believe that most of the FOIs I am involves in are born out of not believing the information being presented in the first place. I will be intrigued to see how this story ends fir sure. Emma

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