Friday, April 01, 2005

Freedom of Information election manifesto

With the General Election expected to be announced on Monday I thought it would be interesting to try and discuss what (if any) should be done to improve the Freedom of Information Act. I have written to each of the main parties (Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem) asking them for their positions on FoI. What I'm also going do is open the debate up - what improvements to the Act do you think could be pledged by the politicians. I'll start the ball rolling with my suggestions - add yours by clicking on the comment option below.

My 5 suggested improvements:

-Make disclosure logs compulsory under the Act as in the US
-Remove the Section 53 override in the Act as recommended in the Phillis report
-Add public utilities and housing associations under the provision of the Act
-Change the exemption "Information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters" (section 23) to qualified from absolute
-The creation of a national index of publication schemes

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

The current arrangements whereby a FOI request could be addressed to anybody are flawed and generate conflicts with privacy with the introduction of the dubios practice of employers opening an employee's post.

The law should be changed so that each FOI request will need to be addressed specifically to the FOI officer of an institution.

Anonymous said...

Not having to respond to YAHOO accounts and suchlike.

For an Act based on the principles of Openness and Accountability the playing field that we've ended up with which allows for the anonymity of one party to a transaction is just plain wrong. It undermines respect for the Act itself.

I see no justification for general anonymity and if, for whatever reason, anonymity is warranted then that should be the exception rather than the general rule and separately provided for.

Anonymous said...

Requests for information in order to get information that is to be used for marketing purposes should be exempt from the Act.

In the NHS, the majority of requests are not aiding public understanding of the workings of the Health Service, but are tying up resources dealing with companies trying to sell their products.

EJM said...

I agree with point1 - I would like to see legislation making disclosure logs compulsory. Having to address a request to an FOI officer would make working practices easier for the organisations, so that'd be good.

Anonymous said...

An easy one:I believe the IOC interprets 'wholly-owned' differently to the Scottish Commissioner, in that the former takes it to be 'wholly-owned by 1 public authority' whereas the latter means 'by 1 or more public authorities'. The latter seems more sensible so clarification in an update to the Act would help

Anonymous said...

I would make 3 modest proposals:

1. Make it mandatory that requests are made using pseudonyms. Remove entirely the ability of public authorities to make decisions based on who is asking.

2. Make all of the exemptions subject to the public interest test and remove the ministerial veto. If disclosure is not in the public interest, that is enough.

3. Give the Information Commissioner annual and rising targets for the number of decision and enforcement notices he issues.

paul2 said...

I would like to see the eight unelected regional assemblies be captured by FOI. Rather perversely, these fall outside the act as they are deemed "voluntary bodies" yet they are taking increasingly influential strategic decisions on matters such as house-building targets, the environment and transport.

Anonymous said...

I believe that the fee regulations are supposed to be revisited...public authorities should not have the discretion to refuse to deal with requests that exceed the cost ceilings. The duty to assist in this context is not sufficiently strong or clear.

Anonymous said...

The problem with changing the law so that an FoI request is addressed to the FoI officer is that it presupposes that the enquirer knows they are making a request under the Act. Perhaps ten of a current list of fifty FoI requests we have received have actually named the Act (and one was a Data Protecton request). The onus must be on the authority to be aware that all written requests are requests under the Act and treat them accordingly.

Anonymous said...

I would add a requirement for the public body to acknowledge receipt of a request within, say 3 to 5 days. I made a request in January but heard nothing back (which appears to be normal for the department in question). After waiting 23 days I contacted the department to be told that they could not find a record of my request and they needed another 20 days to respond (they took 28 days).

DL said...

I have made a number of FoI requests of my own and other nearby NHS Trusts using a pseudonym because I would be compromised if they knew my identity. I can make more powerful requests as an insider because I know the right questions to ask - sometimes I know the answer too. Indeed, as FoI officer, I have just sent a formal reply to one of my own questions! In due course I will be able to publish knowledge gained from FoI not from "work". So I strongly support the anonymity afforded by the Act

DL said...

Make it mandatory for Publication Schemes to be on the web and to contain agendas, minutes and papers from all Board and Corporate Management Team meetings, together with at least a list of "confidential" items considered so that their confidentiality can be challenged.

DL said...

Make it mandatory for a 3 day internal audit each year of the public body`s publication scheme. Many are now hopelessly out of date and therefore useless. Others are very weak and I wonder how they were approved by the Commissioner. There needs to be a sanction if the scheme does not meet some reasonable standards.

Anonymous said...

As a FOI practitioner in a large government department I would make three observations on the Act at this point:

1. The vast majority of applicants are using the Act in a responsible manner. However, there are some who are abusing the Act for personal (commercial) gain by making large numbers (in the hundreds) of request in order to build up a 'database' on public authorities for sale. The fees regulations need to be reviewed (in the autumn, as promised by DCA) and revised to make the Act fair on both applicants and authorities.

2. Anonymity is not a bad thing. It keeps authorities 'honest' and I think it gives applicants some confidence that their request will be treated fairly.

3. Applicants should do their homework. We get many ‘business as usual’ requests coming in through the FOI channel. A quick browse of our website would answer many of the questions or at least direct the applicant to a more appropriate means of getting a response. We have phone lines and helpdesks on many topics and it's a shame that applicants don’t make better use of those. Even a simple request requires a great deal of effort within the authority to track the request, get it to the right person in the organisation and to produce a response. At the end of the day I’m paying as a taxpayer for FOI and I think some of my fellow taxpayers are wasting public money when 5 mins research could find the answer.

Anonymous said...

I believe that rather than address requests to an FOI officer, requests must state "I am making a request for information under FOIA 2000" or something similar to help the authority ensure the best service to customers.

That way requests can be clearly distinguished from routine enquiries which should be serviced quickly anyway. This also makes monitoring requests much easier.

Anonymous said...

I believe that rather than address requests to an FOI officer, requests must state "I am making a request for information under FOIA 2000" or something similar to help the authority ensure the best service to customers.

That way requests can be clearly distinguished from routine enquiries which should be serviced quickly anyway. This also makes monitoring requests much easier.


The problem with this suggestion is that the government looked at it an rejected it while drafting its FOI policy, for a very good reason: The FOI Act is designed to make it easy for citizens to get information, not for public authorities to differentiate between types of enquiry or to monitor them easily. It is quite right that the burden should be on public authorities to recognise their duties, rather than on the citizen to know their rights.

Anonymous said...

Not having to respond to YAHOO accounts and suchlike.
For an Act based on the principles of Openness and Accountability the playing field that we've ended up with which allows for the anonymity of one party to a transaction is just plain wrong. It undermines respect for the Act itself.
I see no justification for general anonymity and if, for whatever reason, anonymity is warranted then that should be the exception rather than the general rule and separately provided for.


- What rubbish! The whole point of anonymity - which the FOI Act does not really provide for - is that it helps to prevent public authorities from differentiating in their response depending on who is making the request.

If you don't believe that this happens, you should read the research on what has happened in Canada by Prof. Alasdair Roberts, here:

http://faculty.maxwell.syr.edu/asroberts/documents/journal/roberts_PA_Spin_2004.pdf
and here:
http://faculty.maxwell.syr.edu/asroberts/documents/journal/cpa_hrdc_02.pdf

I simply don't believe that there is a public authority in existence which would not discriminate in its response to an FOI request from someone it knew had been critical of it in some way in the past - public authorities are staffed by ordinary people and it is human nature to want to try and reduce future problems for oneself.

Anonymous said...

A few comments on previous suggestions.
* Make it mandatory that requests are made using pseudonyms.
How? "We've had your request but you've said who you are so we won't answer it"? This is unworkable, and if you try to operate it, laughable as well.
* Give the Information Commissioner annual and rising targets for the number of decision and enforcement notices he issues. This presupposes that authorities are going to get worse at responding not better. It seems impractical - and on a par with the 'Argos points for traffic wardens'.
* Requests for information in order to get information that is to be used for marketing purposes should be exempt from the Act.
They don't have to say why they want information - and if this caveat was added they simply wouldn't say. More data on the website (so they do their own research) is a better answer.
* I would add a requirement for the public body to acknowledge receipt of a request within, say 3 to 5 days.
I'd agree this should at the very least be good practice - certainly if the authority will take some time to respond in full. We do this anyway - it's in our procedures and customer charter and predates FoI.
* Public authorities should not have the discretion to refuse to deal with requests that exceed the cost ceilings.
Our experience here has been to refuse unless the request will generate information the authority will use. Yes, they may pay for it, but it's still in excess of 18 hours of staff time not spent on the day job. In small authorities you can't afford this on a regular basis.
* Make all of the exemptions subject to the public interest test and remove the ministerial veto. If disclosure is not in the public interest, that is enough.
Good idea, won't happen.