Rethinking Freedom of Information in Britain
15 February 2012
The British Government is questioning the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act. A Ministry of Justice assessment is that people are no better informed than before enactment seven years ago, Westminster is not working any better and public trust in government is falling.
Officials feel that the media abuses rights provided by the Act, using it for fishing expeditions which impose substantial processing costs on the Crown.
The Chair of the Justice Select Committee (Alan Beith) is reported as saying that Ministers and civil servants want to reduce the “costly burden” the Act creates. The insider’s view seems to be that the Act impacts on the efficiency of government, provides a tool for the vexatious and imposes disproportionate costs in preparing information for release. Departments handle up to 2500 requests a year, with each local authority receiving about half that number. Those numbers are growing at up to 15% annually.
There seems some inconsistency in this report. Concurrently, the Civil Service has implemented measures that facilitate open government with projects like Direct Government and a data.gov site for opening up government . A fortnight ago a new site called gov.uk was launched. This is described as “the single, citizen-facing government website for all British-government information”. The UK is one of the countries developing a commitment to the Open Government Partnership. These are vehicles for making information held by government more accessible by citizens.
The Justice Select Committee may perhaps be exploring the contribution it can make to reducing the costs of administration, of doing more with less, rather than planning a retreat from the principles of accessible information and open government.