UK Government Belated FOI Transparency Lamented By The Man Who Pushed For It, 'Cash-Strapped' Agencies

from the stupid-public-keeps-demanding-something-in-return-for-its-tax-dollars dept

The UK's Freedom of Information law was a long time coming. In contrast to the United States government, which (begrudgingly) (and only sort of) threw open its filing cabinets for its citizens' perusal in 1966, the UK's version didn't go live until 2005, after nine years of legislative maneuvering. Tony Blair, who started the push as an opposition leader, was already expressing his regrets five years later.

“Freedom of information,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, “A Journey.”“Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.”
And why wouldn't he? It's a wonderful tool of transparency and accountability. But it's also this:
The requests come in to local councils with appalling regularity: “How many residents in Sutton own an ostrich?” “What procedures are in place for a zombie invasion of Cumbria?” “How many people have been banned from Birmingham Library because they smell?”

In Wigan, the council was asked what plans were in place to protect the town from a dragon attack, while Worthing Borough Council had to outline its preparations for an asteroid crash.
That's the unavoidable side effect of allowing the public to request information from their government. These requests are referred to as "vexatious" and a waste of government funds. But the alternative is to "go dark." There's no middle ground that won't ultimately be misused by government agencies to withhold more information than they already do. And judging from what's been uncovered so far thanks to the UK's FOI law, there's nothing many government entities would like more than additional exceptions and exemptions.
A slew of political scandals have come to light under the act. It was Ms. Brooke’s F.O.I. request that ultimately led to the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, resulting in the imprisonment of five Labour members of Parliament and two Conservative peers.

More recently, Jeremy Hunt, the current health secretary who formerly was culture secretary, was embroiled in controversy after F.O.I. requests revealed his close relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire during News Corp’s approximately $12 billion bid for the broadcaster BSkyB. And Eric Pickles, the minister for communities and local government, landed in hot water for spending about $110,000 on tea and biscuits in a single year.
Smaller government bodies are the ones doing the most complaining about the costs of responding to FOI requests. The complaint is partially legitimate. Less funding means stretching tax dollars further. But it also leads to some disingenuous proclamations.
At Buckinghamshire County Council, workers last year spent 11,276 hours handling more than 1,700 requests, costing the taxpayers more than $400,000. The leader of the council, Martin Tett, complained of the cost in “times of austerity.”

“This is money we could be spending on other vital services, like children’s services or care for the elderly,” he said.
There's a solution to that problem, and it doesn't involve a return to greater secrecy. It's a national law, and funding to cover requests should be made available by the UK government itself if smaller locales find themselves cutting children's services to handle FOI requests. Sure, there's not an infinite amount of funds available, but what's being spent on handling FOI requests is basically a rounding error.
Between October 2013 and September 2014, central government departments received 48,727 requests, which would put the approximate annual cost of freedom of information at over $20 million.

Still, as advocates point out, that represents about 0.0019 percent of the budget — and $20 million is less than what the British taxpayer has paid for the travel expenses of Prince Andrew, the Duke of York.
While ostriches, asteroids and dragons may be "wasting" local funds, the amount spent handling requests is almost nonexistent. Local governments should be petitioning the national government for FOI funding assistance, not claiming that increased transparency is robbing the elderly of proper care or taking food out of children's mouths. It's "think of the children," slightly rephrased. Whenever funds run low, government agencies never take a look at the $110,0000 spent on tea and biscuits. They'd much rather generate outrage and sympathy by pointing the fiscal gun at the heads of retirees and schoolchildren.

Considering the amount of fiscal impropriety FOI requests uncover (despite the best efforts of government agencies to thwart them), it can easily be argued that this transparency pays for itself -- especially when it only has to cover .002% of the national budget to break even.

Filed Under: freedom of information, tony blair, uk


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  • identicon
    Whoever, 24 Apr 2015 @ 7:06pm

    Blair's concerns are different

    Tony Blair is more worried about dirt relating to his time as PM surfacing. The real story behind the "dodgy dossier", for example.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ben (profile), 24 Apr 2015 @ 7:31pm

    Right "Mr. Pickles" story?

    The story you linked to at BBC.com has
    Last year, Mr Pickles was forced to deny reports his department had spent an extra £10,000 a year on biscuits, blaming an "administrative error" for the big increase in hospitality spending
    Which doesn't look like $110,000, although there was also:
    "The sum related to the amount of hospitality we offer... is 17% of the sum the last Labour government spent on hospitality."
    With no indication what that 17% represents... I presume there are other articles detailing the issue in better depth. Or did you confuse the "£" with an extra "1"?

    I can't expect anyone would have spent more than 10 minutes replying to what were their dragon or zombie contingencies: "No records available responsive to your request" would actually seem appropriate -- the "you idiot" being implied.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 24 Apr 2015 @ 9:41pm

    Strange examples

    So they spend about 10 hours average on a freedom of information request. And they point out as examples of the wasted time a request to list the defenses against dragons or zombie attacks.

    If they spend 10 hours on those requests, they have too much time on their hands. I suspect that the actual requests taking significant time are more mundane. Also more likely to turn something up that the public should be in the know about.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Apr 2015 @ 11:22pm

    $$$

    when did the Brits start paying their taxes in dollars?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    fin, 25 Apr 2015 @ 12:33am

    please correct your article

    all figures should be in GBP so those of us affected in the UK can work out how much your on about. Dollar equivelnts are always welcome

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 25 Apr 2015 @ 12:36am

    More recently, Jeremy Hunt, the current health [...]
    Actually, that's Jeremy Cunt, former Hulture Secretary.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Apr 2015 @ 2:59am

    you will always get the idiots putting in requests like those mentioned but the main issue is, without the FOI a government can go about doing whatever it wants, regardless of the harm it does to the very people who put the government in power in the first place! unfortunately, the problem isn't solved because you still get the situations you have in the USA where the requests are just ignored. that begs the question what is the point of having it if the government and its associated services are able to completely ignore the requests or put out documents that are so redacted they mean absolutely nothing??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    peter, 25 Apr 2015 @ 7:56am

    What is so difficult?

    Q. How many residents in Sutton own an ostrich?
    A. Don't know, don't care

    Q. What procedures are in place for a zombie invasion of Cumbria?
    A. None.

    Q How many people have been banned from Birmingham Library because they smell?
    A. Don't know, records not kept

    Q. What plans were in place to protect the town from a dragon attack?
    A. None

    Q. What preparations are in place for an asteroid crash
    A. None

    Just because someone askes a stupid question, there is no obligation on the Council to provide anything other than the simple truth. If the Council does not collect data they simply state they do not collect that data. If there are no disaster plans, then 'none' is the answer.

    How exactly did this take up any more than 30 seconds of someones time? Sounds like someone (Cough - Tony) is just using it as an excuse to backpedal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Apr 2015 @ 9:08am

      Re: What is so difficult?

      Yup. Now if Cumbria *is* actually spending taxpayer money to develop procedures to deal with a zombie invasion, I think the taxpayers should have a right to know what they're up to (despite what Tony thinks).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Just Another Anonymous Troll, 27 Apr 2015 @ 5:07am

      Re: What is so difficult?

      I'd respond, "Raise your arms above your head, scream, and run away."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Zonker, 27 Apr 2015 @ 11:07am

        Re: Re: What is so difficult?

        I'd respond, "Raise your arms above your head, scream, and run away."
        Yeah, because ostriches are really mean and they hate smelly people.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Paul Keating, 25 Apr 2015 @ 9:18am

    Informational Vacuum Hoses

    At Buckinghamshire County Council, workers last year spent 11,276 hours handling more than 1,700 requests, costing the taxpayers more than $400,000. The leader of the council, Martin Tett, complained of the cost in “times of austerity.”

    “This is money we could be spending on other vital services, like children’s services or care for the elderly,” he said.

    More likely guns n Ammo.

    Why not just have the GCQ or such other "secret" entity simpely turn their informational vacuum hose on the public servants. There would be no shortage of information readily available. Instead they vacuum up what is outside teh government and the complain about having to produce information to the public that provides the "spending money" and votes to keep them in office.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 25 Apr 2015 @ 4:44pm

    Everyone would spend a lot less time and money on information requests if public information were simply made public in the first place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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