Ten ways to save money on FOI without changing the Act


by Martin Williams    
10:50 am - February 17th 2012

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The Freedom of Information Act is currently being reviewed by the Justice Select Committee, which is likely to suggest changes to the law. One of the main criticisms of the act is that it is a “drain on resources”.

From my experience of using FOI, I don’t think the law needs changing at all. If the government want to spend less on FOI here’s ten ways they can do it without changing the law:

1. Publish more
By far the best way to reduce time and resources spent on FOI is to simply make more information available online in the first place. Authorities are generally not compelled to publish most information they hold, so huge caches of data are withheld from the public , accessible only through FOI. Although making more information routinely available will never solve every would-be request, the effect on many organisations would be enormous. (So much money is spent on web development anyway – such as Norfolk Police who spent £250,000 redesigning their website – why not spend some of that uploading some actual content?)

2. Make information more accessible
It’s in everyone’s interests for information to be in easy to find, read, search and use. A lot of places publish data in huge unsearchable PDF files, rather than searchable spreadsheets, so people are more likely to send in FOIs. Similarly, it’s not uncommon for organisations to print out FOI responses, scan them and email them as image files. This scanned response from a council is almost incomprehensible. If published data was more accessible there’d undoubtedly be fewer requests.

3. Disclosure logs
When organisations disclose information under FOI, why are so many reluctant to keep this off their websites? Some places like Ofcom, keep a full disclosure log updated regularly. But most organisations don’t – and some, like the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, when asked to provide copies of past FOI disclosures, treat that as an FOI in itself!

4. Provide data, don’t crunch pre-published data
Following on from the above, organisations can save resources by rejecting FOI requests if the information is already published, or is due to be published (this includes disclosure logs). It is not an FOI officer’s job to pull specific data from publicly-available documents, but this often happens regardless.

5. Cut FOI bureaucracy
Some FOI officers send huge documents filled with legal mutterings and comments on the data. Others just send a short email. Why waste time and resources?

6. Respond on time
The statutory deadline for FOI responses is continually neglected by authorities, wasting vast amounts of time and resources. For instance, in this particularly painful exchange the Charity Commission delayed their response by 16 months. As a result of bad practice, some 875 decision notices were issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office last year. Each one takes ages and involves piles of paperwork.

7. Centralise data
A big obstacle for requesters comes when data is spread across hundreds of different institutions. For instance, to get a national picture relating to hospitals, police forces, councils, etc. it is often necessary to send bulk requests. If more data was centralised it would mean far fewer FOIs and would particularly help councils who receive the majority of requests.

8. Stop treating informal requests as FOIs
Freedom of Information is a great thing, but lots of places now push all questions to their FOI team to be treated as “formal requests”. Press offices are far to keen to tell journalists “you’ll have to FOI that,” if the answers are not right in front of them. Even clarifications to FOIs are often treated as fresh requests, creating a whole stack more paperwork and bureaucracy. A greater willingness to answer questions and provide information would save time for everyone.

9. Advise FOI requesters
Many organisations do not provide phone numbers for FOI officers and offer little advice not only on whether the information would be available under FOI, but also whether an FOI is needed at all.

10. Cut links between FOI offices and press offices
FOI requests are meant to be dealt with anonymously, but it is common for authorities to coordinate FOI responses with press officers. Not only is this not in the spirit of the act, it also means more work for the organisation. (More on this dodgy practice soon.)

Of course, aside from all this, should we really be putting a price on transparency and accountability?

I’d suggest not.


cross-posted from Access Docs

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About the author
Martin is a regular contributor, and a freelance journalist. He has written for the Guardian, The Independent, The Sun and The Mirror. He blogs at Access Docs and focuses on FOI and investigative journalism. His own website is here.
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Reader comments


Excellent.

Please send this to University East Anglia – it is an excellent set of suggestions

If an organisation is collecting management data (aggregate data that does not contain personal information), a general policy of publication may make sense. It may be cheaper to extract the information once, plonk it on a web site and tell people that it is there.

I find the idea of centralising data more problematic. Local government, police authorities, health managers use different systems and collect different data. If that data is munged into a central repository, the result may be less clarity rather than more.

On “Stop treating informal requests as FOIs”, one reason for this is managerialism and lack of autonomy of press officers or managers. It can be a pain in the butt to answer a straightforward question for people who know the answer but don’t know whether that is their role. It is easier to adopt the system’s rules and say “make an FOI request”. That is not to argue in defence of managerialism but for those who have to endure it.

“But most organisations don’t – and some, like the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, when asked to provide copies of past FOI disclosures, treat that as an FOI in itself!” / “Stop treating informal requests as FOIs”

I agree that more should be published, that information should be more accessible and that disclosure logs are a good idea. However, if someone makes a written request for information held on FOI disclosures then that is certainly a request for information under the FOI Act and should be treated as such.

Most written requests for information held by the local authority will technically fall within the ambit of the FOI Act regime and place a legal duty on the council to treat the request as an FOI request. This is so even if the request was made ‘informally’ and the requester did not intend for it to be an FOI request.

Generally speaking, local authorities disclosing information promptly without treating it as an FOI request is fine (and it would be a waste of resources to treat everything as an FOI request). However, if the local authority fail to promptly disclose the information requested (or redact some of the information) then the fact that they did not treat it as an FOI request could be problematic for them.

For example, http://informationrightsandwrongs.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/tweets-and-twts/ speaks of how a press officer once responded to a press enquiry by a journalist asking for information about a council employee and an alleged criminal offence by simply saying that they were “unable to comment”. While this was true because of data protection, the press officer should have technically actually treated it as an FOI request and issued a formal refusal notice. The council’s failure to issue a refusal notice resulted in a complaint from the journalist to the Information Commissioner. As the aforementioned blog post noted, if the Information Commissioner had issued a decision notice on the matter then he “could not have avoided a determination that there had been a breach of FOIA” by the local authority for failing to treat it as an FOI request.

Neither the Freedom of Information Act nor the Environmental Information Regulations require that a request be described as a request under the relevant regimes. Indeed, ICO guidance states that even tweets on Twitter and Facebook messages can count as FOI requests: http://www.ico.gov.uk/Global/faqs/freedom_of_information_for_organisations.aspx#f6942046F-B3F1-4C7D-BAE0-471DC99066E1

5. The Fourth Estate

FOI requests are completely unnecessary.

If you want to know what politicians are doing, all you need to do is read the latest edition of the wonderful Sun.

The Sun is so good at this that, poor innocent journalists are being cruelly persecuted for showing you, the people, the truth.

If it ain’t in the Sun, then you don’t need to know it.

@diogenes #2:

Please send this to University East Anglia – it is an excellent set of suggestions

But there’s nothing in the list about changing the law to allow publication of information the copyright of which is held by another.

@Robin Levett #7:

What do you mean by “allow publication of information the copyright of which is held by another”? If you mean allow re-publication of information received as a result of an FoI/EIR request then I agree that more needs to be done to address this matter. However, if you were talking about removing copyright as a barrier from responding to an FoI/EIR request then that would be unneeded as one cannot currently refuse to release information on the grounds of copyright.

The Copyright Designs and Patents Act states at s.50(1) that “Where the doing of a particular act is specifically authorised by an Act of Parliament, whenever passed, then, unless the Act provides otherwise, the doing of that act does not infringe copyright”.

@Josh #8:

What do you mean by “allow publication of information the copyright of which is held by another”?

One of the thrusts of the OP is that voluntary publication, in advance of any FoI request being received, is the way to go. The provisions in the FoIA and CDPA as to disclosure of copyright information wouldn’t help in such circumstances.

Nor, by the way, do they help when there is a contractual non-publication obligation.

Finally, it is probably the EIR that apply – and they do (explicitly) protect IPR.

@ Robin Levett #9:
Ah yes, I can see what you mean.

The duty under Regulation 4(1) of the EIR that “…a public authority shall in respect of environmental information that it holds: …progressively make the information available to the public by electronic means which are easily accessible” is presumably limited by Regulation 4(3) because Regulation 12(5) states that “a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that its disclosure would adversely affect… intellectual property rights”. This would, I expect, mean that Copyright Designs and Patents Act s.50(1) would not apply, meaning that local authorities cannot lawfully publish copyright material without permission as part of their publication scheme.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

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  2. Henry Stockdale

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  3. Jason Brickley

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  4. TaxPayers' Alliance

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  5. John O'Connell

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  6. Patron Press - #P2

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  7. James Haddon

    Great ideas for improving the way FOI requests are handled – at little/no extra cost: http://t.co/WBElIh8U

  8. Andrew Ducker

    The Freedom Of Information Act is under attack for costing too much money. Here's 10 ways to make it cheaper… http://t.co/tomXV5Lr

  9. Andrew Ducker

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  10. Paul Crowley

    10 ways to save money on FOI requests http://t.co/cgGhI21u charging for FOI requests removes an incentive to be open in the first place.

  11. Paul Crowley

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  12. leftlinks

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  13. leftlinks

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  14. Martin Williams

    My piece on #FOI cross-posted on Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/GdcuG1Y5 via @sunny_hundal

  15. Martin Williams

    My piece on #FOI cross-posted on Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/GdcuG1Y5 via @sunny_hundal

  16. Ibrahim Hasan

    My piece on #FOI cross-posted on Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/GdcuG1Y5 via @sunny_hundal

  17. Ibrahim Hasan

    My piece on #FOI cross-posted on Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/GdcuG1Y5 via @sunny_hundal

  18. Gods & Monsters

    10 ways to save money on FOI requests http://t.co/cgGhI21u charging for FOI requests removes an incentive to be open in the first place.

  19. Gods & Monsters

    10 ways to save money on FOI requests http://t.co/cgGhI21u charging for FOI requests removes an incentive to be open in the first place.

  20. James Carrier

    Excellent suggestions. What price transparency? RT @libcon: Ten ways to save money on FOI without changing the Act http://t.co/4qhdsKlD

  21. Joe Jordan

    10 ways to save money on FOI requests http://t.co/cgGhI21u charging for FOI requests removes an incentive to be open in the first place.

  22. Kate Dobinson

    My piece on #FOI cross-posted on Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/GdcuG1Y5 via @sunny_hundal

  23. nospin_43

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  25. Owen Blacker

    RT @libcon Ten ways to save money on FOI without changing the Act http://t.co/zNS2eqNg

  26. Nick H.

    Ten ways to save money on FOI without changing the Act http://t.co/1O4g1sln

  27. sunny hundal

    Ten ways the government could save money on FOI requests without changing the Act http://t.co/rF68PyAR

  28. Max Bell

    Ten ways the government could save money on FOI requests without changing the Act http://t.co/rF68PyAR

  29. third city

    How the Govt could save money on FOI requests without banning them http://t.co/2B3AjcqB

  30. Tania

    Ten ways the government could save money on FOI requests without changing the Act http://t.co/rF68PyAR

  31. The Small Places

    Ten ways the government could save money on FOI requests without changing the Act http://t.co/rF68PyAR

  32. Peter Martin

    Not often LibConspiracy says anything (a) liberal (b) worth reading. This post is both #FOI http://t.co/Sd1eRFYI

  33. Ben Raza

    Fruther to a recent Ben's World (T&C Feb 2), here's a great piece by @sunny_hundal on Freedom Of Information http://t.co/IRrGmuWh

  34. Tim Easton

    Ten ways the government could save money on FOI requests without changing the Act http://t.co/rF68PyAR

  35. House Of Twits

    RT @sunny_hundal Ten ways the government could save money on FOI requests without changing the Act http://t.co/sNE0e9tp

  36. Tony Finch

    http://t.co/QpNP9nQW – How to save money on FOI without changing the law.

  37. “Politicians push for new Freedom from Information Act” | A dragon's best friend

    [...] Martin Williams at Liberal Conspiracy has written a very useful blog on how the delivery of Freedom …. Number 9 is particularly good. One of the things I did on a number of occasions when dealing with FoI requests was to phone up or contact the requester. This was to have a discussion about the request, to clarify points that were not clear and sometimes to say that either we had more information that we could supply/publish or that other named organisations may hold other information that may be useful for whatever the purpose was of their requests. [...]

  38. IpswichCAB

    Ten ways to save money on FOI without changing the Act ~ http://t.co/xugEyAGz

  39. human rights law

    Ten ways to save money on FOI without changing the Act ~ http://t.co/xugEyAGz

  40. Ermintrude

    Ten ways to save money on FOI without changing the Act | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/vdc13oAU via @libcon good suggestions.

  41. Robin Millar

    Insightful comments on better, cheaper access to information at @ForestHeath perhaps? Number 4 stands out… http://t.co/jbx0i36H #in

  42. “Politicians push for new Freedom from Information Act” « savefoi2012

    [...] Martin Williams at Liberal Conspiracy has written a very useful blog on how the delivery of Freedom …. Number 9 is particularly good. One of the things I did on a number of occasions when dealing with FoI requests was to phone up or contact the requester. This was to have a discussion about the request, to clarify points that were not clear and sometimes to say that either we had more information that we could supply/publish or that other named organisations may hold other information that may be useful for whatever the purpose was of their requests. [...]

  43. Kiran Oza

    Here's some good advice for public bodies struggling to resource responses to FOI requests: http://t.co/wuCWrYFS

  44. Kiran Oza

    Here's some good advice for public bodies struggling to resource responses to FOI requests: http://t.co/wuCWrYFS

  45. Iain Ellis

    Here's some good advice for public bodies struggling to resource responses to FOI requests: http://t.co/wuCWrYFS

  46. Reid Hutchison

    Here's some good advice for public bodies struggling to resource responses to FOI requests: http://t.co/wuCWrYFS





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