Info Commissioner to crack down on FOI shirkers
Commissioner limbers up for July review
Britain's Information Commissioner is examining the open government credentials of over 100,000 public sector organisations as it prepares to strike a tougher line on enforcing freedom of information laws.
After an initial learning period for both the IC and the public sector, the IC is now seeking to ensure public sector organisations are acting in the spirit of the law and are not just paying lip service to it.
Dawn Monaghan, head of strategic support for FOI at the IC, is overseeing a review of the public sector's response to FOI laws introduced in January. The findings, she said, will be used to create a yardstick by which the IC will judge how seriously public sector organisations are taking their responsibilities toward freedom of information.
The main focus of the survey of 110,000 public sector organisations is the publication schemes that declare what information they will automatically make available to the public.
The infamous FOI requests are used to seek the disclosure of information not revealed as part of a publication scheme. The more information a public authority makes available through a publication scheme, the less need there is for requests to be made for its release using powers given to the public under FOI law.
Scheduled for publication in December, the review will determine what classes of information have been made available in the publication schemes of different types of organisation. It will be noted, for example, if hospitals in Cheshire typically publish the minutes of their chief executive's meetings, but hospitals in Kent do not. Those who fall short of the mark will be expected to have a good reason why they are withholding information from the public.
The IC will use the results of its survey to form a yardstick for publication schemes based on "best practice", said Monaghan. It will use its view of best practice to circumvent the weak powers of enforcement given it under FOI law.
"There's a bit of an issue because all the act says is that we should approve publication schemes," said Monaghan. "We would have liked a bit more, that the information commissioner should determine what classes of info should be in there."
The IC will make up for its limited powers by using its authority to reject or approve publication schemes during the next major review of schemes beginning in July 2006.
"We can't say, you've got to have this class of information. But what we can do is say we expect to see a class of information," said Monaghan.
"If you don't give us a robust reply, we could not approve [your publication scheme]. If you can't give us a damn good reason, you've got to put it in," she warned.
The good cop approach so far taken by the IC has been indicative of its sympathy for the learning process publication sector organisations have gone through in their implementation of FOI law. However, Monaghan said, the IC will now be getting tough with FOI shirkers and raising its expectations of all.
"We [initially] told authorities we want four wheels and an engine, but next time round we will want air conditioning," said Monaghan.
In trying the bad cop act on for size, the IC is indicating its growing confidence. The review is also assessing the IC's response to complaints, which has been slow because it has been learning the ropes.
However, said Phil Boyd, deputy information commissioner: "The pace we will deal with complaints will pick up now we've got more experience."
The IC's attention to publication schemes has marked a difference in its approach to FOI from that taken in other countries. The UK's first Information Commissioner, Elizabeth France, noted the lacklustre approach FOI authorities in other countries had taken to publication schemes and vowed not to let them flounder in Britain.
The focus on publication schemes, perhaps the most significant aspect of France's legacy preserved since her 2002 departure, encourages organisations serving the public to act in the spirit of openness, rather than to the letter of the law.