FOI and Accountability?

Does freedom of Information increase accountability? Officials think that it does not, according to a survey by the Ministry of Justice recently mentioned in the Guardian.  The key word here is think. They think it doesn’t because they don’t directly see its effects.

Officials don’t notice FOI because often it works with other accountability mechanisms, especially the  media or NGOs (see Voices for Libraries on going campaign).  FOI rarely hunts alone and its use is lost amid lots of other questions, communications and research. A long running parliamentary investigation into extraordinary rendition , for example, used FOI in the UK and the US alongside Parliamentary Questions to show that a little more was known about the mysterious flights than was admitted at the time.

Officials also don’t notice it because it is not always high profile or immediate. For every MPs’ expenses  scandal or list of visitors to Chequers there is the patient, often slow, digging up and fitting together of pieces of a jigsaw. Chris Ames has spent many years exposing bit-by-bit the inner workings of government as it prepared for the War in Iraq. His work has raised many questions about the defences made by the politicians involved.  At local level there are many groups using it to pursue all sorts of important issues that may escape officials’ radars, allotments being a good example.

FOI does make government more accountability but not everyone sees it.  Sometimes it is not the kind of accountability politicians or officials want. Often it is for unexpected things. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Why won’t expenses go away?

The point of transparency, according to the theorists, is two-fold:  You’ll be judged for what’s exposed and – only when effective sanctions or accountability mechanisms exist for bad behaviour – you won’t want to continue to act badly. Sounds easy, right?

The problem, in the real world at least, is the definitions in the concept above. Who constitutes the ‘judge’ of what’s exposed? Who decides what sanctions are appropriate? What’s riskier for an actor – attempting to hide behaviour or taking the punishment a ’judge’ hands out?

Looking at some news stories over the last few weeks, the FOI ‘expenses’ fad is more than a fad after all  – FOI requests for expenses continue to be made, and in tandem with proactive publication, hundreds of column inches  continue to be filled by stories about expenses.

And the reason this is still happening is that it continues to be unclear (and therefore newsworthy) about what any expenses system is ‘supposed’ to look like. The goal posts keep shifting – what was acceptable before the banking (or indeed the MPs’ expenses crises) isn’t necessarily ok now, though of course, it could one day be again. Where the real accountability lies is often not with the headlines in the media, but by the structures already in place in the system. Transparency’s two benefits are by no means a given.

In the context of increasing student fees and a decrease in the teaching budget, the expenses of university vice-chancellors this week, investigated by the Independent on Sunday, makes the perfect story. The expenses “cover worldwide travel and lavish entertaining” according to the paper, while the universities argue that “the expenses were largely run up on official business” and they insisted they had “robust mechanisms to weed out frivolous claims.”

Comments on the expenses by union and student leaders did not call for the resignation of any vice-chancellors. Usman Ali, vice president of the National Union of Students, argued “Universities must listen to students’ unions and make their expenses and pay structures transparent to stop abuses.” But without stronger sanctions, and keeping in mind the theory above, what can listening and more transparency do to actually instigate the kind of behaviour change students and unions want? In reality, the buck stops for many vice chancellors at their respective university councils.

Universities argue their expenses regimes are fit for purpose and by being exposed they are acting responsibly. A Housing Association has taken it upon itself to begin publishing details of their expenses. Being threatened with FOI-inclusion by Minister Grant Shapps, they have embraced the push towards transparency and opened themselves up to the scrutiny of others.

Is that a safe move, PR-wise? Even when efficiencies are made overall, exposure of expenses doesn’t always inspire trust: the total claims made by MPs’ are down by a fifth this year, but that hasn’t stopped the Daily Mail focussing on first class travel. Context is everything: “[MPs’ expenses claims] highlight the extent to which the system cossets MPs from the crippling rises in the cost of living that are squeezing the incomes of ordinary families.” Ouch.

The issue remains a touchstone across the public sector: this week examples come from the police, the British Council, the BBC, former MPs like Tony Blair (and less recently, Thatcher,) and even popping up in the Leveson Inquiry.

The most interesting piece of expenses news this week however, might be a small survey by YouGov, carried out for Concur, a firm which specialises in expenses software. 18 per cent of respondents said they would exaggerate expenses claims if they believed they were otherwise underpaid. Who’s fit to judge now?

Is All Openness Local?

Following our report on FOI and local government in England, we have had some interesting reflections on how FOI works elsewhere.  One of the really interesting points concerns how users are often focused on ‘local’ access to issues that are of importance to them. High profile expenses stories aside, FOI is actually about making a difference at the level of your own street or ‘micro-politics’ as someone wiser than me called it. Could this also be the way for new Open Data innovations such as fix my street?

Here’s the FOI (or FOIL) view from New York state:

‘Our FOI law (known by many as “FOIL”) has been in effect since 1974, and this office was created as part of the law.  There are approximately 100 state agencies, but more important to most residents are the thousands of local government agencies, i.e., counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts and the like.  Most residents have little connection with federal agencies in their daily lives and rarely have occasion to seek records under the federal FOIA.  A few have relationships with and a need to gain access to records of state agencies.  But everyone has a need at some point to seek information from local government, perhaps in relation to an environmental issue, building code and land use issues, the assessment of homes and other real property, the means by which taxpayers’ dollars are used or allocated by school districts, the qualifications of teachers and other public employees, the effectiveness of law enforcement functions – – the possibilities are endless.

We have also found, in general, that the smaller the unit of government, the more likely it is to be open.  In short, there is direct accountability. Most residents here, in the capital city of Albany, would recognize the Mayor walking down the street.  Few would recognize their congressman.

In short, despite the focus on Washington and the federal FOI Act, I believe that a local access to information law,  such as the 50 separate state FOI laws in the US, or a law of general application that includes local government within its coverage, is of primary significance and utility to the average person.  Further, for reasons suggested earlier, local government officials are more likely to comply with law and to be accountable that those higher up in the governmental chain of command.’

See http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/ for more information, reports and analysis

New edition of Government and Information: the law relating to access, disclosure and their regulation

A long-time friend of the Unit, Prof Patrick Birkinshaw, and Dr Mike Varney have just published the fourth edition of their book, Government and Information: the law relating to access, disclosure and their regulation. It is designed to be a guide for legal practitioners who work with information laws, and also covers reforms involving the web, protection of privacy, the role of grievance procedures and judicial review in assisting openness,  and the role of the courts in obtaining information.

Should We Give Them Some Space? FOI and Cabinet decisions

The retiring Cabinet Secretary Gus O’ Donnell spoke in an interview today about the need to amend FOI to protect decision-making. He was concerned that the possibility of release led to officials ‘fudging’ the minutes.

“I want the minutes to accurately to reflect what people have said. I want good governance…I want them to have an open space. I want us not to be fudging the issue by saying there was a little discussion.”

He also spoke of the nervousness over lack of certainty in the law over Cabinet discussions.

‘He said he wanted more certainty that Cabinet minutes would be protected than offered by the current law, suggesting amendments to the Freedom of Information Act. “If we could draft it in a way that would really enhance openness and transparency whilst allowing some safe space, that would be good for all of us”.

What Gus O’ Donnell is referring to is a variant of the so-called Chilling Effect.  We have concluded that FOI can have this effect but it doesn’t do so systemically and it is almost impossible to disentangle the effect of FOI from lots of other concerns (see page 16-18 in our local government report). However, these conclusions come with qualifications. 

1. Finding evidence is very tough. FOI does cause nervousness but whether it then leads to changes is more difficult to prove. Gus also said in his interview ‘ he had not “fudged” any minutes, but was “nervous”. It would be interesting to see firm evidence and if the fudging refers to particular incidents or a general ‘shift’ in minute taking approaches. We found one or two clear cut cases but they were rare and unusual. Proving a negative and asking officials to admit unprofessional conduct is tricky.

2. Is it FOI to blame? Gus said that “Can I guarantee that this is going to stay private? No, I can’t.” But inhibitions (or lack thereof) over discussions are down to many things. Leaks were, are and always will be a huge issue- who said or did not say what and when was central to many recent controversies issues from the War in Iraq to the EU veto.  A well timed leak can hinder many enemies foreign and domestic. Even US Cabinet discussion about the impact of Wikileaks was leaked.

3. Many politicians and officials told us that the ‘politics’ of decision is often ‘off paper’. How and why minutes are recorded how they is due to many things from style to resources. It plays into wider styles of ‘doing’ decisions. Do you do unminuted ‘sofa government’ or are you more formal?

4. Interestingly, overall there were some paradoxical views held. Officials at other levels were more concerned about the consequences of not having a record rather than having one.

5. Very few requests are actually made for Cabinet documents. Only one release of Cabinet Minutes has taken place over Thatcher’s controversial ‘Westland’ affair. Some countries, such as Canada,  actually completely exclude all Cabinet material from FOI.

However, nervousness abounds among officials especially at senior level. This may also be heighted due to how they come into contact with FOI. Senior officials will only be copied into particularly sensitive or problematic requests. Unless they are particularly curious they will only see one in every hundred or thousand and the ‘worst’ one at that. In Ireland, such concern did help lead to a change in the law as it related to Cabinet documents.

Finally, Gus also spoke about the use of the ‘veto’ (called in the article the ‘nuclear weapon’) which can be deployed to overturn appeal decisions. This protection, then, is available but it has only been deployed twice in the UK. This compares with 48 times in the same early years of FOI in Australia. This seems to point to a perverse incentive-unlike a nuclear weapon or an EU veto – the more it is used the less attention it gets.

Town Hall Transparency?

Our new report on FOI and local government concludes that the FOI Act has made councils more open and transparent. Each year more and more questions have been asked with request numbers rising from around 60,000 a year in 2005 to nearly 200,000 in 2010.

Underneath the media headlines about senior officials’ salaries,  investments and the cost of dying, FOI is being used more quietly, day-to-day, by the public to find out about things that matter to them; allotments, parking, speed bumps etc., as you can see in these records of requests  here and  here (this one also lists requesters by type). Businesses are using it to keep one step ahead of the competition and national and local pressure groups are making FOI requests on all sorts of topics from zoo licences to libraries. It may even have helped to uncover a murder.

Some councils are more open and more at ease with FOI than others. A few have resisted and played games. Many are concerned it’s being ‘abused’ by businesses and journalists. Most of all officials are worried about how they will cope with rising request numbers with fewer resources.

Since January 2011 councils have published all their spending over £500 on their websites (see here). The government hopes this will give transparency an extra push and also motivate ‘armchair auditors’ to check where and how councils are spending and misspending our money. The response has been mixed. Some councils have had no interest in their data, while elsewhere local newspapers have exposed controversial spending on string quartets or libraries , as have a  few national newspapers . One official said the benefits are internal, as it has allowed councillors to understand their own budgets.

FOI and Open Data are working more and more closely with new online innovations, that allow data to be ‘mashed’ and sifted, and hyper local sites that serve as a platform for residents to talk about local issues. However, it remains to be seen if new technology and further local government reform helps or FOI or if it will be undermined by dwindling resources’.

Departing O’Donnell: FOI damages discussions

Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, set to step down after six years as the country’s top civil servant, told the Public Administration Select Committee the Freedom of Information Act has had a “very negative impact on the freedom of policy discussions.”  The Guardian reports that Sir Gus, echoing former PM Tony Blair,  said that “If asked to give advice, I’d say I can’t guarantee they [ministers] can say without fear or favour if they disagree with something, and that information will remain private. Because there could be an FoI request.”

Measuring the ‘chilling effect’ is difficult as anecdote is easier to come by than hard evidence, as a previous post of ours discusses.

FOI and local government in 2010: The experience of local authorities in England

The Constitution Unit has just published its report on English local authorities’ experiences complying with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) throughout 2010.  The report aimed to gain an understanding of the numbers and types of requests local authorities received throughout 2010, the problems they encountered with compliance and their thoughts about different aspects of FOI.  The study used a web-based survey of local authorities’ FOI practitioners.  Of the 353 local authorities in England, practitioners from 104 (or 29%) gave substantive responses to the survey.  Key findings include:

  • Based on answers given by the 104 participating practitioners, the total estimated number of FOI/EIR requests received by local authorities in 2010 is 197,737. This is 33,229 (or 20%) more requests than we estimate were made in 2009.
  • A total cost of £31.6 million (an average of £159.80 per request) was estimated based on multiplying the average number of hours spent on a request, the total number of requests and the £25 per hour standard rate in dealing with an FOI request. Cost has therefore steadily fallen since 2008, showing an increase in efficiency in dealing with requests. It should however be noted that it is relatively difficult to generate an accurate estimate considering both the comparatively small sample and wide spread around the average time spent on a request.  Interestingly, some local authorities (such as Rotherham Borough Council) have taken to including the cost of handling a particular request upon supplying the information to the requester.
  • All council types improved their performance with regard to answering requests within the 20 day limit, despite the fact that requests are increasing in number.
  • With regard to amount of information disclosed following a request, slightly more were answered in full in 2010 (79.1%) compared to 2009 (78%).  However there are wide differences amongst council types.  In line with this, the number of requests where no information has been released has decreased, though again, there are wide differences across council types.
  • Opinion was divided over the impact of the £500 spending publication rule introduced by the coalition government. 

“Extra work and virtually no benefits – for residents, businesses or the Council!”

“It’s a springboard to further regular disclosures, with a bit of luck.”

  • Financial information continues to be the most frequently requested, as has been the case since 2008.
  • According to respondents, the general public generate most requests, contradicting Tony Blair’s publicised regret that FOI is used not by “the people”, but predominantly by journalists.  However, it is difficult to be certain of exactly who is making use of FOI as most councils fail to record this.
  • Respondents identified a few main problems with compliance: requests, requesters, lack of resources, and the cooperation of management or service departments.  This is a similar list to that of the 2009 report.

“Increased number of requests with less resources available to deal with them”

“Receiving information from holders and communication of requests from departments”

  • When asked about positive effects of the Act, the most frequently given answers were: the development of more open, transparent, and accountable authority, improvements to records management, and general improvements to the organisation.

You can read the full report here.

Prince Charles and FOI, part III

OysterThe Veto

Prince Charles has once again been thrown into the spotlight thanks to Freedom of Information.  Following an investigation by the Guardian which made full use of FOI, “a secretive constitutional loophole” was discovered which gives Prince Charles the right to veto legislation that might affect his private interests in relation to his role as Duke of Cornwall.  The Guardian claims that since 2005 Prince Charles’ consent has been sought for bills on up to seventeen occasions. Funnily enough, neither the government nor Clarence House has revealed what real impact the veto has had.

The Prince’s veto is intrinsically linked to the Duchy of Cornwall, created in 1337 by Edward III to provide an income for the Monarch’s eldest son and heir.  The Duke of Cornwall must consent to laws which might affect his estate.  The reason behind this parliamentary procedure is that, if no heir existed, the Duchy would revert to the monarch and is therefore subject to royal prerogative.  Whilst the veto seems archaic and out of place in our modern representative democracy, its recent exposure has not prompted any moves to decrease the Prince’s influence.  According to Downing Street, there are no plans to change the 700 year old convention.

The FOI request

In stark comparison, a request for environmental information (EIR) has instigated a groundbreaking change for the Duchy with regard to FOI.  In 2008 Michael Bruton requested information from the Duchy regarding the introduction of non-native oysters to the Port Navas Oyster Farm, a designated conservation area.  Bruton wished to know which environmental assessments had been carried out to ensure that introducing the non-native oysters would not have a detrimental effect.  The Duchy, claiming itself to be a private estate, refused to give the information.

In October 2011, three years after the initial request for information, an information tribunal ruled that the Duchy of Cornwall should in fact be classed as a Public Authority, thus becoming subject to FOI and finally allowing Bruton to acces the information he requested.  The Duchy had in fact failed to carry out an environmental assessment of the oyster farm.

The ruling by the information tribunal is not however just a personal victory for Bruton.  In classifying the Duchy of Cornwall as a Public Authority, the estate has been completely redefined.  Primarily because much of the Duchy’s actions impact on the environment, they will no longer be considered confidential, as has been the case for the past 700 years.  The decision therefore makes the Duchy generally more open to public scrutiny and challenges.  The past couple of weeks have therefore seen Prince Charles’ role as Duke of Cornwall both upheld (with his right to veto remaining intact) and undermined (being no longer exempt from FOI/EIR).  Whilst he considers whether to appeal the tribunal’s decision, perhaps he should be reminded that, as the saying goes: you win some, you lose some.

£500 Online Publication: What’s Going On?

David Cameron has promised a ‘transparency revolution’ based upon Open Data and online publication. As part of this, since January 2011 all local authorities in England (with one exception) have begun publishing online details of all their spending over £500. What is this supposed to achieve? According to the government, many things. Publishing online will make local authorities more transparent, less wasteful and will help the public understand where its money goes. It will also give developers the opportunity to create new applications. Most of all, it will give power back to the people, enabling an army of armchair auditors to hold government to account.

What do we know? One survey of 168 local authorities found that 17 per cent felt the online publication had been ‘very successful’, 13 per cent felt it had been ‘somewhat’ successful, 17 per cent ‘good in theory but not in practice’ and 23 per cent did not know. So what of the benefits? 38 per cent felt it had increased transparency, 25 per cent accountability and 13 per cent trust. Only 3 per cent felt it increased participation or social and commercial value.

Our own study found similar variation. Some local authorities had experienced very little interest in the new data with one recording ‘180 visits and one FOI request’ in 3 months and another experiencing local media interest in ‘electricity and phone bills’ which had quickly ‘settled down’. Elsewhere there were higher levels of interest in the data, particularly from the local press and some ‘small use by trade unions’. Local media stories have highlighted odd spending on training, consultants and crematoria. Others pointed to internal benefits, with officials and politicians now able to better understand their own authority’s spending.

There has been, as of yet, little sign of the army of armchair auditors. In June Eric Pickles praised a group of bloggers who held to account the flagship Conservative authority over its contractual procedures. Other sites have sprung up with names such as ‘armchairs auditor’, and ‘reluctant armchair auditor’ but the latter wrote in the Guardian that the data was ‘not yet’ of good enough quality. There are difficulties around finding out who is accountable and knowing what mechanisms to use, whether to pass information to the media or the authority itself.

It has led to a growing number of new sites that help quickly and simply analyse the spending data, such as ‘Spotlight on Spend’ and ‘Openly Local’. The latter site is an open source site containing 168 local authorities’ spending data, attracting around a 1000 unique visitors a day, including businesses and local politicians. These sites allow you to quickly examine and compare authorities by payments, providers and make sit easy to benchmark. Many feel the future lies here.

It’s still very early days to say if it has succeeded or failed. The new online publication will make government more transparent and the parallel publication of salaries and contracts. It is unlikely to lead to very much ‘armchair auditing’ from the public, as most people won’t have the time or the patience to scroll through long excel sheets, but NGOs and journalists will find it useful. The area to watch will be the ‘local’ initiatives and hyper local sites. It is here, on their doorsteps, where the new information may make a real difference.

This article appeared in the Local Government Chronicle

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