Transparency and the Freedom of Information Act
For Cornwall Council, it has had its fair share of FOI requests from various professional media bodies, businesses and the public. The council even gets a mention in this report. It is not uncommon for people to asked for the number of FOI and the subjects of a FOI by means of a FOI.
Maybe the reason why FOI’s are now more commonly used is because any information requested has to be dealt with in a defined time, or as highlighted in the report, people are more aware of how a FOI works. It also makes sure that any information requested has less chance of being misplaced, and therefore forgotten about.
There is a costs for every FOI dealt with, and this for Cornwall Council is £150. Cornwall Council has over the last few years received the following numbers of FOI:
- 2009/10 – 1100
- 2010/11 – 1300
- 2011/March 12 – 1600 (projected)
- There is heavy use of FOI by a wide range of businesses at local level
- Rising request levels appear to be driven by increased awareness of FOI and media stories in the national press (especially MPs’ expenses) but also local stories. Requests can also come in waves around a particular issue
- Requests from the public are often niche and of private interest to the person, which makes proactive disclosure ineffective as a means of reducing the number of FOI requests.
- Finally, high profile cases aside, FOI rarely obtains a ‘smoking gun’ and requests are often used as part of a wider information gathering campaign, like a jigsaw, or as a lever to obtain influence in a campaign.
The former Prime Minister Tony Blair who’s party introduced the FOI is quoted as saying: The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet (Blair 2010). He may have a point, but then maybe his government should have thought it through a little better before it was introduced.
The press and both local and national government have different roles, but Freedom of the press, democracy and the right to free speech are principles that all hold dear and each has to play its part to uphold those principles.