The 30,000 replies to a consultation show a sharp divide in attitudes about whether change is needed
Published submissions to the government-created independent commission on freedom of information show a predictable - but nonetheless uncomfortable - divide in opinion.
In one corner, public bodies are strongly demanding reforms to reduce the burden of compliance. In the other, bodies ranging from campaign groups to newspapers to law firms passionately oppose any watering down of the regime.
In all, the consultation attracted some 30,000 responses, presumably including some from what former communities secretary Eric Pickles memorably termed 'armchair auditors'.
A response from Chelmsford County Council exemplifies local government’s attitude. To the question “Are controls needed to reduce the burden of FoI on public authorities?” it replies unambiguously “Yes”.
It suggests imposing a £10 request fee, similar to the €15 fee that was imposed by the Irish government but dropped in 2014.. This would not cover the actual administration costs of providing information but would reduce the volume of requests.
A joint reply from Cotswold and West Oxfordshire District Councils articulates a common complaint: “A large number of requests appear to come from businesses seeking information for their own benefit rather than in the public interest (as opposed to the media, charities and lobby groups etc, and private individuals).”
Official figures about the proportion of business requests may be an underestimate. For example, the councils say they regularly receive requests for lists of properties with a business rates credit balance from people using a gmail address and not disclosing any information about themselves. “It seems unlikely that a private individual would want this data,” they claim.
Both councils say they have have tried to reduce the inflow of FoIs by publishing databases, both those required under the Local Government Transparency Code and those about subjects on which they receive a large number of enquiries, such as non-domestic rates.
However, the number of FoI requests continues unabated.
“If FoI requests were confined to enquiries from the press, lobby groups and charities, private individuals and businesses pursuing genuine concerns we would consider that the burden imposed by the legislation was reasonable," the two councils say. "However, given the amount of officer time which is being taken up with responding to marketing related enquiries (whether to market to us or other individuals), we are concerned at the burden that the FoI Act has created.”
Meanwhile Fay Gooch, chair of Barming Parish Council, submits as “a busy parish councillor and borough councillor” that FoI “needs a complete rethink: it needs to be far more focused in its aims, stricter in its applications, and more clearly understood by the public”.
She points out that many members of the public use FoI to request information that they could obtain by either making more use of their local councillor, or by simply asking the question of the authority.
“Such an approach would enable questions to be absorbed into ‘the day job’ instead of having to be put through a separate burdensome and resource-thirsty process,” she says.
However, increasing fees and making it easier to refuse requests “may seem like a good idea, but it will alienate the public and increase negative perceptions of local government”,
On the other side is a diverse group of users of public information and transparency campaign groups - the two categories often overlapping.
Spend Network, a start-up company which uses open public data to build a picture of what is being spent by over 270 organisations, says it needs FoI requests to ensure the publication of open data.
The Open Government Network (OGN) says that any weakening of the FoI Act in the UK “would run contrary to the spirit and purpose of the international Open Government Partnership, undermining the leading role of the UK, and would offer reassurance to closed and corrupt governments around the world”.
Struggle with technology
Activist web group MySociety is predictably on the side of more transparency. Its submission calls attention to the exemption from FoI enjoyed by private sector operators of public services.
It also offers a clue to why some organisations find freedom of information a burden: “Sometimes public bodies appear to struggle with technology, and for example print documents out before scanning them to release. Such approaches create an unnecessary workload.”
Specialist consultancy Aldersgate Partners agrees: “Our experience is that most of those who oppose FoI are people who have not come to terms with IT and that IT is now a normal part of working life. They are the people who wish IT could be disinvented. They have on the whole not made a sincere effort to upgrade their own skills and attitudes.”
Just possibly, in the long run the problem of handling freedom of information will solve itself.