FOI and the Great British Public

A Guardian article yesterday said that Civil Servants feel that The Freedom of Information Act (FOI) has not improved Government.

You can read it here if you missed it.

You’ve got to have a system.

I agree with the bulk of this article. I am not totally convinced that “Joe or Joanne Bloggs” were ever really sure what FOI is meant for.

Of course, there have been some crackpot, waste of time requests. That was always going to happen. But to quote our Commerical Director, “Freedom of Information – nice idea, but it’s not being used to any great effect by the public. This seems to driven by an apparent apathy. ” She goes on to say, “The country gives the appearance sometimes of being politically disinterested – just look at the turn out for local elections. The key question is, if it’s purpose was to engage the public was it just poorly promoted or is the Great British Public just indifferent and apathetic?”

Good question. It seems to me that the more local it gets, the interested people get, as Local Government appears to receive more FOI requests (shame they aren’t quite so keen on turning out for elections but there we are). This may indicate a disconnect with Central Government and lack of interest or that people generally want more information about the ‘in my backyard’ type of question.

So what do people think of FOI? There seems to be confusion between FOI and Data Protection Act – again think about how these have been presented to the public and it may not be so surprising. Few people realise that organisations have an obligation to maintain a publication scheme and few public organsations proactively market their publication schemes.

FOI seems to come into its own for journalists looking for information – sometimes justified, sometimes salacious, for their stories. This is in danger of bringing the whole scheme into disrepute and that would be a shame.

I spoke to Mike Gillespie, our MD about this yesterday and he said, “Yes, however don’t lose sight that this report discussed in the article, was written by civil servants, and civil servants have to process FOI requests…” So imagine that now it is beginning to be viewed and discussed as a “costly burden” means there may be changes ahead.

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