from the information-wants-to-be-withheld dept
The UK's short-lived, awkward relationship with its Freedom of Information law appears to winding its way towards an acrimonious divorce. Not fully implemented until 2005 and disowned by its co-creator (former PM Tony Blair) in his memoirs only five years later, it has apparently now reached the point of irreconcilable differences: those being the public's interest in what their representatives are doing and their representatives' extreme disinterest in sharing their
feelings emails and documents.
Not that it ever was a fully-functioning Freedom of Information law (it was pre-sabotaged by automated email deletion programs before it ever went into effect), but it was at least somthing. But, sadly, it appears the UK government's "embrace" of transparency is every bit as sincere and warm-hearted as its embrace of free speech.
Michael Gove, the justice secretary, is considering making it more difficult to procure information from government bodies, including allowing officials to count “thinking time” when calculating how much it costs to retrieve information. One plan is to make it easier for ministers to veto publication of certain documents… Another is to change the way the cost of finding information is calculated so that officials can more readily turn down requests.The first aspect would hand final veto power over to acting prime ministers. This is viewed by Gove and others as "needed" because the government was unable to prevent Prince Charles' correspondence from being released to The Guardian. As is almost always the case with contested open records requests, some embarrassment resulted from the publication of the released documents -- which showed that member of royalty pushing his personal perspective on issues like defense spending… or homeopathy... on a variety of legislators.
The second aspect is more related to Michael Gove's own FOI problems. Gove has previously been investigated for using personal email accounts to conduct official business. The 90-day automatic email destruction policy the UK government instituted is somewhat helpful in keeping the public uninformed, but what if someone wants to retain these official records longer for personal reasons, but doesn't feel particularly compelled to share them with FOI requesters? Well, that's where the discussion of fees comes into play.
Currently, citizens can request anything as long as the costs incurred by government bodies doesn't exceed £600. Considering many files are stored electronically, can be easily searched and resulting documents sent electronically, costs of fulfilling requests continue to decrease. So, Gove and others are suggesting a couple of changes: lowering the £600 cutoff point and/or padding invoices. The latter would see such intangibles as "considering" potential document releases billed at an hourly rate. Redaction efforts would also be billed.
If these changes are put into effect, FOI releases will slow to a trickle and some requests will meet with an almost un-challengable refusal, thanks to executive veto power. David Cameron promised a "complete revolution in transparency" during his term. Depending on your opinion of Cameron, this is either the antithesis of his goal, or exactly what he had in mind.