Freedom of Information. What does it mean to you? The opening up of a clandestine behemoth into something that is open and transparent and accountable to everybody? Or a way of finding out the things that government doesn’t really want to tell us? Or maybe it is just a different way of asking a question you want to know the answer to?
The last published National Statistics (for 2016) showed that just over 45,000 Freedom of Information (FoI) requests were made in the UK. The majority of these were responded to in time, i.e. within 20 working days, but fewer than half were granted in full. The main reasons for not providing a response are that it relates to personal data (which is fair enough!) and the cost of preparing a response. In terms of guidance, this equates to £600 for central government and £450 for all other public authorities. So, if it takes 3 working days to produce a response the chances are it is going to be rejected. Of course, we are welcome to pay the estimated cost to get a response (£25 an hour), but this rarely happens.
In a previous life as a Senior Civil Servant I was bestowed the honour of approving FoI requests. It was one of those tasks that never makes it into the job description or comes up in any discussion about objectives, but openness and transparency are ingrained when you work within government.
Any request made to the Department for Education relating to technology would make its way to me for approval, and they tended to come in waves. We would go a month without any and then we would get a few a week. As a technologist, they were often from suppliers trying to find out when contracts came to an end, or from people asking about cyber security attacks (which we just aren’t going to confirm or deny, thank you very much for asking!), or for people doing research projects. Each of these would generally arrive at me close to the deadline for a response, having been painstakingly prepared and reviewed by the relevant experts. “Round robin” requests, where a number of organisations have been asked the same question involve email trails and meetings and discussion to make sure there is consistency of wording across all of the responses. It all takes time and effort. And then I needed to read, review, understand and approve – ideally without being a pedant and changing grammar and asking too many questions.
In the years prior to joining the Senior Civil Service I had FoI training. This was delivered by a very charismatic and enigmatic gentleman who has since retired and whose name I won’t mention. As somebody who likes to talk, I found that my initial responses were too wordy. I would try and get inside the question and understand what they really wanted to ask, rather than what they did ask. So “How much did the Department spend on IT in 2013” had turned into a year-on-year analysis and a breakdown by cost centre. I thought I was being helpful. But I was trained that all I needed to do was to answer the bloody question that was being asked! I had to fight my inner civil servant tendencies to be brief and to the point.
But the actual process of gathering information was at times just too unwieldy. A simple question could have a complicated response due to the way in which different teams siloed their data. And sometimes you wouldn’t even know the response to an FoI that had been asked previously because another team had answered it.
From my perspective, much of the time taken to respond to an FoI is spent throwing the money onto somebody else’s back and hoping it stayed there. I received requests regarding the education system (well, it’s a system, so it must be IT, right!?) or for the amount of money spent on technology in schools (sorry – we did the Department for Education’s IT, not for all 21,000 education establishments). But it was a case of somebody trying to get it off their to-do list and onto somebody else’s. The team responsible for chasing these responses would often be frantic and over-stressed. But once the right person was able to alleviate them from their BAU activities and onto the response, the quality was normally high and the path to approval smooth. Sadly, this was often in the final days prior to the 20 working day SLA being breached. But I always prioritised this activity and fought to get a response out in time.
Some Departments have clearly struggled with this. In 2016 BIS saw a huge drop in their timeliness. 27% of responses were late. Its successor, BEIS, had just under a quarter of responses sent out late. In this time of automated workflows, centralised data and mobile tools to aid collaboration, this is not good. If a business failed to respond to 25% of requests in a timely fashion then how much revenue would it lose?
And there is a considerable cost from not responding. It takes time to review a request and estimate how long it would take. This non-response then needs to be reviewed by an appropriate authority, most likely challenged, and then sent back. And even then, it doesn’t end as 16% of withheld requests are reviewed internally, and just under 500 were referred to the ICO. I have been through this process and it takes time, and whilst I was 100% confident in the response I had signed off, appeal processes are there for a reason and I was delighted when it was upheld in full. But I could have done without the phone calls and briefings and additional paperwork to deal with!
So, what can people do? Well, if public sector bodies had a mechanism for managing FoI responses then they would know immediately whether it is a duplicate request, which could be signposted within a day of being received rather than being farmed out to somebody who has a long memory. It there was access to corporate record stores that held the necessary information then it would make it easier and quicker to respond. It would also reduce the need to withhold information on the grounds of cost as mandarins wouldn’t need to search through network drives and SharePoint sites to find information. If only we had a decent, low-cost FoI app for Microsoft Dynamics. Does anybody know if one exists?