A Modest Proposal for Improving FOI: Leave it Alone

by | Sep 26, 2011 | FOI, ICO

The deservedly celebrated blogger FOI Man recently wrote about changes (http://www.foiman.com/archives/382) he thought would help FOI to function better. Inspired by this, I wondered what my changes would be – but on a long car journey, I realised that I actually thought that FOI should be left alone. Even though certain commentators will bend your ear about how our FOI is greatly inferior to others around the world, and the law comes in for significant criticism from campaigners, it actually does a good job.
Our current FOI Act is not the superior model envisaged by David Clark’s White Paper which appeared after the 1997 election, but neither is it the comedy vehicle first introduced to Parliament. Thanks to FOI, we have seen commercial information, senior salaries, minutes, notes and emails all brought into the public domain – and I predict more surprises to come. FOI has survived David Maclean’s attempt to exclude Parliament (remind yourself on the Campaign for FOI’s website whether your MP voted in favour of that), the proposal to limit the number of requests, and Tony Blair’s ungallant repudiation of it in his memoirs. Admittedly, I’m Old School – I got a job at the ICO just after FOI was passed, and accidentally started a ‘career’ that changed my life completely and for the better. But I think we should stick with the Act as it is, letting it continue its rather haphazard but undeniable forward momentum.
In particular, I’ve picked out some specific suggestions from the lists of proposed FOI changes I’ve seen, and explained why I think they should remain.
Five things not to do to FOI:
1          Don’t create mandatory FOI disclosure logs – all they do is show how many people ask about Common Purpose or parking. A disclosure log is a list of things that other people wanted, and a mandatory one will allow more eccentric punters effectively to colonise public sector websites in the way that some have already done on WhatDoTheyKnow. An organisation daft enough not to publish the stuff it regularly gets asked for deserves the extra requests.
2          Don’t make applicants quote FOI – it would concentrate FOI in the hands of people who know about FOI.  We do need skilled investigators and campaigners to direct FOI’s beam onto the right places, but we should not disadvantage people who don’t read the Guardian. Leaving the Act as it is means that every public authority needs to be alert to enquiries, operating a default setting of answering questions unless there is a good reason not to. Many do this anyway; those that don’t need an extra lever.
3          Don’t remove the ministerial veto – politicians should be allowed to prove that they are responsible enough to have one, and get the criticism if they go crazy and use it too often. We’ve had relatively few vetoes – the low number casts both previous and current administrations in a good light.
4          Don’t remove publication schemes – the fact that the ICO hasn’t ever known what to do with them is no reason why they can’t work (and as I was involved with schemes the first time round, I deserve my share of criticism for the fact that they don’t do anything worthwhile). Make them do the proactive job they were intended for.
5          Don’t extend the cost limits – the time limit for finding information for a government department on a single request is currently 24 hours or £600. Any more than that, and you kill FOI in the minds of those who are already sceptical about it. A higher profile for records management could well have the same effect, and have knock-on benefits for organisation and applicants that go wider than FOI.

So that’s my list of what to do (nothing) – what’s yours?