Transparency and the Freedom of Information Act

I was kindly sent a document is called ‘Town Hall Transparency’ by @DEdward5 on Twitter. This document is on the impact of freedom of information (FOI) on national and local government in England. It has been written by UCL’s Department of Political Science and has just been published. I would like to congratulate the document writers for a well written paper.

The whole document can be viewed HERE.

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)
It is when you add up the numbers of FOI you get the cost of near £435,000. That is a huge amount of money in any one’s book. In fact FOI requests to local authorities (LA) and central government have been rising steadily since the introduction of the legislation. 
In 2005 there were 60,000 requests to LA’s and 25,000 to the government. By 2009 this had risen to 165,000 for LA’s, and 40,000 for the government. Using the £150 per FOI this totals £74,250,000 over four years. 
You might think the press are to blame for the massive increase in numbers of FOI’s, but they are not. As in the report it clearly states:  Some authorities have had a great deal of interest from the local press and some virtually none. It does not appear to have had an impact on FOI request numbers. Yes, the press do submit many of the FOI’s, but not one can point the finger and say it’s your fault.
The four main areas of requests and requesters are:
  • 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.

    I am a firm believer that FOI if used right are good, especially when a LA, or the government is being ‘difficult’ in supplying information. However, FOI asking how many Jedi Knights, or other niche enquiries a LA has is a complete waste of money, and time.
    Of course with any FOI there is a chance it maybe used against the government department, or LA, but this goes with the territory, especially if the wrong, or not fully correct information is sent out. We all know how Cornwall Council has fallen foul of this mistake once or twice. 
    At the end of the day if a FOI request is in the public interest it will be find it’s way into the various media outlets. It is how you handed the story once it breaks is the key. Throwing toys out of the pram by saying the council’s being seen in a bad light because of the media is pure fiction. In fact, the press and a council work well together in many areas.

    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.

    5 comments

    • Stephen Richardson

      personally I think that working out a cost of a FOI request to the council is a nonsense. If the same information was asked for but not under the FOI Act would it cost less? Or would it simply be ignored. In other words the 'cost' is simply a proportion of people's salaries that represents time in answering questions – but isn't that their job anyway? If there were no FOI requests does this mean that the council would save £240,000 a year? Only if they stopped providing information.

    • Cllr Andrew Wallis

      Everything has a cost. In your shop you know a porton of fish and chip will include the price of the fish, chips, paper, cooking, wrapping, staff, elect/gas, and over all running costs to produce a product. The same is for producing a FOI.

      The council has to have a dedicated team to deal with FOI, not someone picking up the files if they have done all their other work.

    • Anonymous

      Crikey I hope you arent the mk economics spokesman,a staggering lack of understanding..

    • Stephen Richardson

      I think that you are both missing the point.

      Why does it cost more to answer a FOI request than any other request. If someone made a simple request for information via email, but not under FOI, would this cost any less than the same email made under FOI provisions?

      What is the cost of answering a query that isn't FOI and if it costs less then why?

      It seems to me that the council is merely trying to provide a spurious economic reason for disouraging use of FOI.

    • Anonymous

      When in in a hole its best to stop digging,do you seriously not know the difference between an FOI request and a "simple request"?

    Please feel free to leave a comment to the post, as I like to hear your views! However, comments that do not meet the rules of the site (found in Blog Disclaimer) will not be published. Furthermore, all comment need to be approved by admin before publication.