UK Official Praises FOI Law; Study Calls It Oversold

29 September 2010

United Kingdom Information Commissioner Christopher Graham marked International Right to Know Day with by praising the benefits of the UK law, but a new study says that all of the law’s promised virtues are not yet apparent. 

Graham said the law has “paid for itself many times over in the beneficial impact it has had on reducing unnecessary spending – and that contribution can only increase in the years ahead,” according to a press release on his speech. 

“Freedom of Information shines a torch into the dark corners of public service, identifying wasted money and duplication of effort,” he said. 

“Organisations, whether public or private, need to invest in information rights – whether it’s Freedom of Information, good records management, or data protection,” said Graham, adding ,“Where organisations fall down on their information rights obligations they do so at the cost of destroying citizen and consumer trust.” 

Addressing potential budget cuts, he said:  “In the current circumstances of reduced budgets and increased concern for transparency and accountability, information rights are a front line service, not a mere back office function. We all have to do more for less, but much is expected of all of us working in the information rights field.” 

Graham noted also that “more and more, public authorities are volunteering to publish information without being ordered to do so by the Information Commissioner.” He commented, “That means less money is being wasted on long drawn out investigations and appeals.” 

Study Examines Promises

Separately, a new study has found that the 2000 UK law “has met its core objective of transparency and, in the correct circumstances, accountability. Yet it has not achieved the secondary objectives, the `wider transformative’ aims that flow from them.”

These four secondary objectives were to be: improved decision-making by government, improved public understanding, increased participation, and trust in government.  That they have not been noticeables “is not because the Act has `failed’ but because the objectives were overly ambitious and FOI is shaped by the political environment in which it is placed,” according to the study by Ben Worthy.

The study, available free for 30 days, was published by the journal Governance Sept. 24.

Among its positive conclusions, the study found:

The fears of those who felt that political institutions and their “culture of secrecy” would undermine FOI have proved, on the whole, groundless. The dense network of secretive rules and attitudes appeared to present a significant barrier. There has been resistance, obstruction, and uneven levels of openness. However, FOI does bring increased transparency by information release, and accountability, in the correct circumstances by questioning and receiving an answer based upon that information. This is because both rules and attitudes toward openness had already been shifting prior to FOI as access reform, ICTs and growing concern for consultation steadily eroded the obstacles and prepared the ground for FOI. This meant that FOI was not as “difficult” or “unattractive” a policy to Whitehall as many feared.

Also just out is a new book on the UK experience:  “The Impact of the Freedom of Information Act on Central Government in the UK – Does FOI Work?” by Robert Hazell, Ben Worthy and Mark Glover.

The publishers are offering the book at half price until the end of October. To take advantage of this please go to the website at the link below and enter the code: WFOI2010.

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