Under a sea of bad law from this administration, the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act is an oyster. It provides anyone who requests it a right to public information and obliges public authorities to release it; often information which they otherwise would have kept secret (because of embarrassment) or simply not bothered to go to the trouble of providing (why bother?). It has made public life more open, transparent and accountable. But as with all good things, costs are involved and getting hold of information is not as easy as it may at first seem.
The right to public information is not well understood among public officials, even among those responsible for FOI compliance. Protecting the organisation from the public is too often their main concern. Getting the information needed is often dependent on whether you are sufficiently tenacious or are lucky enough to have asked a motivated FOI official who doesn’t see it as his job to disrupt you. The Act is not popular with many officials whose information is requested. They see it as bureaucratic and inefficient. It is both, but this usually merely highlights another reason why the state should not be involved in the activity in question. It is not proof that accountability in public office and for public money is a bad thing.
Three things should be done to improve the situation. First, some exemptions need to be watered down and one ‘commercial interests’ (except ‘trade secrets’) should be abolished. Second, the penalties for organisations and officials found to be in breach should be stiffened. The consequences of ignoring the law are often thought to be laughable, with good reason. Applicants whose information was wrongly withheld should be modestly compensated and officials who knowingly or negligently ignore the law should be personally liable. Third, the Information Commissioner’s Office should ensure that all complaints are investigated as quickly as possible so that blame can be attached to organisations while the staff who made the errors are still in post, before they move on.