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