Friday, September 28, 2007

Freedom of Information makes for more open public bodies but secrecy remains

While all who must, are attempting to obey Freedom of Information law, secrecy remains and many public bodies & services display a reluctance, backed up by prevarication of FOI requests and occasional intimidation of those seeking information.

The Herald reports :

Public bodies more open but reluctant to obey spirit of FoI law, claims study


Public bodies have become more open since the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act was implemented but are still reluctant to give details, new research suggests.

The study found 89% of authorities felt they were more transparent and three quarters reported they were better at storing and retrieving information.

However, researchers from Glasgow Caledonian and St Andrew's universities found a "legalistic" approach had been taken by many administrations and officials were reluctant to obey the spirit of the law.

There was also evidence the act, introduced in 2002, had been used to delay requests for sensitive information by journalists.

In turn, 25% of officials within public bodies felt some people, journalists in particular, were abusing the process by making frivolous and impractical requests.

One authority claimed it had received 100 separate requests for information in one approach from a journalist.

The report, The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002: New Modes of Information Management in Scottish Public Bodies?, was commissioned by Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion and examined how the Scottish Government, police, NHS and councils were fulfilling obligations to respond to public requests.

It found that, although the FoI legislation covers all written requests for information, a two-tier approach had evolved with applications dealt with under the terms of the act or on an informal basis.

Complex or controversial applications to authorities were more likely to be dealt with according to FoI legislation, but straightforward requests were treated as "business as usual", it was found.

Some journalists reported questions that would have previously been answered swiftly before the legislation were now dealt with under the 30-day FoI timeframe. Government officials, who remained anonymous in the report, also claimed to have come under political pressure from managers when dealing with controversial requests.

Eleanor Burt and John Taylor, the report's authors, claimed there was a culture clash within public bodies between those who saw the need for openness and bureaucratic departments who only complied with legal duties.

"Systems have been put in place, responsibilities have been formally assigned and requests are being handled pragmatically with little if any sense of democratic considerations," the researchers wrote.

The report urged better leadership in pushing through the "democratic rationality" behind the FoI legislation and ensuring officials were informed about obligations.

Kevin Dunion also came under the spotlight, with the report urging the Information Commissioner to hand out more information about developments in the law.

Disclosures under act

# Paul Hutcheon, Sunday Herald's political correspondent, scored arguably the biggest strike under FoI in 2005 when he got receipts that showed David McLetchie, the then Scottish Conservative leader, paid for taxis for private legal work using public funds. He later resigned.

# Kevin Dunion, Scotland's Information Commissioner, forced the NHS to reveal statistics that showed patient mortality rates of different surgeons.

# Campbell Martin, Independent MSP for the West of Scotland, got North Ayrshire Council to disclose correspondence related to its controversial PPP project.

No comments: