Friday, November 03, 2006

Frontier economics report - FOIA review

Here are some further comments about the Frontier report. My position is: the changes the government are minded to make are based on the evidence in the report, the evidence in the report in my view is not clear in enough in explaining, in detail the rigour and comprehensiveness of the research methods used, sampling and the basis for assumptions. Until more background information about the research is published it is hard to understand the rationale for changing the fees regulations. The other issue is that taking a purely economic approach is only part of the jigsaw: it is unclear that any further research will be done on the impact of the proposed changes: what types of information are likely to be excluded and how will this impact on the understanding of information relating to policy formulation in particular. The crude analogy in the report is based on very subjective language and assumptions - "expensive" requests must be reduced, the current level of efficiency in request management is acceptable, the level of ministerial involvement with FOI requests is accceptable.

There is also not enough discussion about the likely impact of the proposed changes (to include reading, consideration consultation plus wider aggregation) on the ICO caseload and the increased complexity of adjudicating on such subjective issues as reading (even if a methdology is developed as Frontier suggest).

My view is: there may be some abuse of the Act going on that is burdensome but the evidence needs to gathered in a transparent and well thought process over a longer period of time combined with a wider consultation. Why not link in with the wider study UCL are conducting? (that DCA are part funding) Greater consideration needs to be given as to whether improved practice in terms of application of S14 and existing allowances of aggregation could not offer efficiency improvements.

Some further comments I've got on the Frontier report: the government can hardly be suprised about the costs of the dealing with FOI requests: research was carried out by the Home Office in 1999 (see Home Office (1999) Freedom of Information: preparation of draft legislation: background material: annex A: the financial consequenes of freedom of information, unfortunately now archived off the DCA website). This document is not referenced in the Frontier report Whilst this research this research was carried out having to project forward without opertaional knowledge of FOI: much of the evidence makes interesting reading and this was information available when the current fees regs were drafted. Some of the key information is in annex A of the 1999 document:

- The net incremental cost of implementing the legislation is assumed to be up to £125 million a year (in 1999 £125m is 0.05% of total public expenditure) (there isn't a detailed breakdown how the figures were derived - it is hard to know how comparable this is with the £35m quoted in the frontier report)

- Average estimate costs for govt depts range from av cost of a PQ (£62) to the highest - £350 the FCO for Code requests

-Annex B of 1999 report contains various tables based on low and high cost assumptions and different forecasts of requests. Table 6 is based on a demand forecast of 133,000 (close to the total figure of estimated requests from 2005) and an average cost of per request of £350. The net incremental cost in this model is £90m. The Frontier report makes no acknowledgement that these high cost projections had been considered 7 years previously.

- The point I'm making about the above is that work has been done on costs before and there is little reference to it in the frontier report, the costs of FOI should hardly be a complete suprise to the govt given this knowledge.

One of the most worrying aspects of the Frontier report is the speed at the which the the report was put together and the lack of explanation of some of their reasoning behind assumptions.

Some other issues in the report that haven't yet been picked up by other commentators:

-In the report section 1.2 outlines the "approach" to carrying out the review, the quote "Given the short timescale for the work it has not been possible to undertake any primary data gathering." is telling. The range and sampling of the data used is very unclear: what week was use for the sample and why was it chosen, what information was logged? what data was received from the clearing house?

- There is no acknowledgement at all of the Environmental Information Regulations in the report and specifically the different wording of relating to charging (EIRs S8(3)"A charge under paragraph (1) shall not exceed an amount which the public authority is satisfied is a reasonable amount") and how the proposed changes could be challenged under the EIRs as unreasonable.

-The DEFRA guidance on fees under the EIRs states: "Above these FOI appropriate limits differences apply. An EIR request cannot be refused solely on cost grounds. Nor is it advisable to classify any request over the limit as "manifestly unreasonable " solely on the grounds of cost."

- The example of an expensive request in para 2.3 ( request to DTI about carbon emissions) is not a relevant example to use. The Frontier team don't consider the EIRs S12(9): "To the extent that the environmental information to be disclosed relates to information on emissions, a public authority shall not be entitled to refuse to disclose that information under an exception referred to in paragraphs (5)(d) to(g)." that should have reduced the complexity of readings and consideration and the above guidance on EIR fees.

-Because the report only gives us selected examples there is no opportunity to conduct a proper cost/benefit analysis and understand the nature of the the types of information that would not be released under the proposed new measures.

It is also worth noting that the report also makes the following recommendations (that the govt have not yet indicated whether they will accept):

-RECOMMENDATION: CONSIDERATION SHOULD BE GIVEN TO CHANGING THE WORDING OF SECTION 14 OF THE FOI ACT FROM VEXATIOUS ‘REQUEST’ TO VEXATIOUS ‘REQUESTOR’ It is very hard to see how this can work in practice and would likely to be incompatable with Human Rights legislation to designate an individual as vexatious. The report makes no attempt to anayse current use of S14.

- RECOMMENDATION: THE COST PER HOUR FIGURE USED TO CALCULATE THE APPROPRIATE LIMIT SHOULD BE REFLECTIVE OF THE ACTUAL COSTS OF DELIVERING FOI. As has been pointed out in other articles the figures used are inflated due to the use of £300 per hour for Ministerial and Private Offices (no evidence has been offered for how £300 is arrived at)


-RECOMMENDATION: CONSIDERATION SHOULD BE GIVEN TO INTRODUCING A FEE FOR CERTAIN TYPES OF REQUESTORS INSTEAD OF/IN ADDITION TO A FLAT FEE. This recommendation attacks the "requestor blind" principles of the FOIA and would introduce a new overhead of proof of identity that public authorities would be required to administer.

Already the following queries have been raised about the data used the report:

-The BBC have challenged the data about the number of requests the report projects the BBC has made and their costs

-The Guardian have a made a similar challenge about the number of their requests extrapolated from the data

Campaign for FOI request for survey used by the report

Maurice Frankel from the Campaign for FOI has has made a request to the DCA for the "survey carried out in January 2006 of the time needed to respond to FOI requests", that has formed part of the evidence used the develop the estimates and costing in the Frontier Economics report. The request has been refused: "The DCA maintained that the information fell within the FOI exemption (S35) relating to the “formulation and development of government policy” and that the balance of public interest favoured withholding the information". The Campaign have now applied for an internal review. The repomse is well written I certainly agree with arguments put forward that this information should be released and as Mauruce argues runs contrary to the DCA's own advice on S35.

Read the DCA's response to Maurice's request and the Appeal

Round up of some of the further coverage and debate

Martin at the BBC Open Secrets blog has also made some useful obervations about the Frontier economics report:

-False economies

-Always read the footnotes

-Costing the maximum or maximising the cost

The Times has made available the full transcript of a long interview with Richard Thomas, he is asked a question about fees:

Q: Where are we on the question of charging for FOI requests?

R: Well at the moment, in the vast majority of cases there’s no charge. There’s for central government a £600 threshold. If the costs of collecting the information exceeds £600 – which is fairly rare – then they don’t have to deal with your request. Figure for the rest of the public sector is £450. The government has announced last week the cost of FOI is about £34m. Now whether that’s a very high figure or very low figure is for others to speculate. I haven’t get got to the position of any public comment on the fees and charges issue. And I’m not able to give full answers yet, but we only saw this last week and we will have a considered view probably in two or three weeks’ time.

Also see from the Guardian from Monday:

Leader: Stepping back into the dark
"When it comes to ID cards and CCTV, ministers like to argue that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. With freedom of information, they should apply the same logic to themselves."

Cabinet confidential

"The government's plan to restrict Freedom of Information requests from the media is not an efficiency drive but brazen censorship, argue David Leigh and Rob Evans"

The importance of our right to know

October 30: Bad government is ruled by secrecy and that's what we've had in the UK for decades. Decisions made in secret do not lead to good value for money or good public services. By Heather Brooke.

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