Getting Better All The Time? FOI and Local Government in England

The findings from our survey for 2009 confirm some of the emerging findings from our study of FOI and local government. The number of requests to local government is continuing to rise steeply across all authorities, as it has been doing year on year since 2005. What is interesting is that this pattern seems to be a general increase from all types of requesters and no particular group, such as the media or business, are responsible for the rise.

One big event did, however, shape the 2009 findings. The MPs’ expenses scandal led to a wave of requests to local government for information relating to salaries and expenses of local officials and politicians. Many officials who have spoken to us also feel that the scandal has had a damaging effect on public perceptions of all politicians at whatever level and of whatever party. This may account for the fact that fewer officials now feel FOI has improved relations with the public.

The common concerns of most FOI officers, and others, are resources and misuse. Resources are not rising to meet request numbers and the concern among many officers we have spoken to is that they are now at capacity and dealing with as many requests as it is possible to deal with.

There is also a widespread feeling that FOI is being ‘misused’, not technically but used in a way that is against the ‘spirit’ of the Act. This can come in many forms. It can mean use by journalists to trawl for large amounts of information or by businesses to gain competitive advantage. It can also mean individuals pursuing a grievance. A particularly interesting finding is that so few officials feel FOI is helping local members of the public.

It is by no means all negative. Officers continue to feel that FOI has improved the transparency and accountability of local authorities. A growing number of officers also seem to feel that FOI has improved records management within their organisation.

Our findings give us an overview of what is happening, a general snapshot of a changing picture. But one of the difficulties with looking at local government is the sheer variety of approaches and attitudes. Local government in England is already open, and FOI has improved that, but some authorities are more open than others.

Exactly how open each individual authority is may depend on many things and the attitudes of senior officials and politicians towards FOI within each area is crucial. Interestingly, size or political make up doesn’t appear to have a bearing.

The next big question for us is how the publication all spending over £500 will influence FOI. Will it lead to fewer requests, given that nearly a third of all requests relate to finance? Or will it lead to more as users ask for more background or query figures? Is there an army of armchair auditors waiting to pounce or will it be a handful of the usual suspects? We hope the 2010 survey will tell us.

This is a version of a comment piece that appeared in the Local Government Chronicle on 20/1/2010

To see our survey findings follow this link

To see preliminary findings from our FOI and local government project click here