Today’s decision to leave the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act mostly as it is should be welcomed. Perhaps not enthusiastically by some, but the good parts of FoI far outweigh the bad.
Public bodies should be open with the people who fund them, be they individuals, businesses, or the media.
The reasons I’ve seen so far for wanting to change FoI were based on the apparent sensitivity of information or time and cost implications, but there are already rules in place for most of these. And charging for information about public bodies sets a dangerous precedent.
Some local authorities, and the Local Government Association, have made the case for change, but it’s not been a convincing argument.
Using cost as a reason for change just doesn’t work, after nearly 16 years work on FoI should be an established part of a council’s core business. It is both a small and valuable part of a council’s responsibilities, the public have a right to know.
Work on FoI requests is a joint effort, it doesn’t just belong to communications teams. Legal, finance, and individual service teams all play a key role, as do communications colleagues, and it isn’t difficult to share the load if an effective system is established.
And if there are FoI requests that come up repeatedly, you can save time by uploading these questions and answers on to your website, and simply directing people to them.
As for FoI requests from the media, they provide an opportunity for communications teams to make them less formal and more effective.
Rather than wait up to 20 working days for a response using the formal route, journalists can be given the information more quickly if they can be persuaded to abandon the formal route and change their request to a standard media enquiry, which requires less time and fuss.
And when appropriate, journalists can be given more information than they’ve originally requested to provide background and context to their originally enquiry.
In the run-up to today’s announcements there have been a series of articles making the cases for and against change.
Some, like journalist Ian Burrell in his Independent article have also used the defence of FoI to repeat the usual exaggerated nonsense about all the spin doctors working in council communications teams, conveniently lumping all disciplines together to suit their tired old case.
But others, such as Lord Kerslake, a former council chief executive and head of the civil service, stick to the valid points of why, overall, the FoI Act is good for democracy.
Communications colleagues may find FoI requests irritating at times, but they should embrace them too. As with any relationship there should be give and take on both sides, even if this compromise is sometimes an awkward one.