Information: freedom or constraint?

Few reasonable people would argue that the culture of freedom of information that has developed over recent years has been a bad thing. The world of unaccountable and secretive decision-making has no place in modern society. In that setting legislation protecting this freedom has had many beneficial effects.

It is therefore with hesitation that anyone will want to question how this is being applied, but my recent experience has suggested that a review might be useful. In our system, universities being public bodies, anybody can address a freedom of information (FOI) request to them and be entitled to an answer, unless the information sought is personal or appropriately confidential. My own university can get dozens of such requests every month, some of them requiring considerable research work to answer. In Scotland it is not possible to charge a fee for this work, so that increasingly large amounts of staff time has to be diverted from normal tasks to deal with such requests.

Furthermore, a significant proportion of such requests either come with a personal agenda (which is often quite appropriate, but sometimes not) or with obvious commercial intentions. So for example, we regularly get requests clearly aimed at acquiring information that will then be used to bid for business, so that I find my staff are spending time and resources doing ground work for somebody else’s commercial proposal.

Specifically in the university context, I wonder whether FOI has rendered some of our communications and records rather meaningless, as people fear that everything they write may at some future stage be made public.

It is not politically easy to suggest that the FOI culture could have gone too far. Indeed I am not wholly sure that it has. But it may be time to look again at whether it is becoming a little industry of its own that is distracting public bodies rather than assisting the public.Perhaps it might be possible to redraw the rules a little to ensure that the real purpose of such arrangements is protected, while any potential misuse is not.

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5 Comments on “Information: freedom or constraint?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    ‘Reasonable people’ is in the same family as ‘right thinking people’ and ‘decent people’, all I view with profound suspicion when I encounter them.

    I’m sorry though, but I must disagree with you on your main point. That you’ve a few people trawling through your records is a small price for freedom to access generally and get you to navigate your own archives.
    How many government departments have file housing the size and shape of where Indiana Jones hid the Ark of the Covenant. So my view on this would be that you need to have a better recovery methods. Sorry again. V

  2. John Carter Says:

    Perhaps we need an Accuracy of Information Act.

    • John Carter Says:

      Perhaps one of the faithful could invoke one of their all-knowing deities to do that job for us. (I realize this is a little off-topic. ~ ignore me.)

      And now, back to FOI..

  3. Compared to better-established FOI regimes such as the US, it is actually surprising how little commercially-motivated FOI activity we still have in the UK. There is commercially valuable information to be had for free and British companies aren’t collecting it.

    I’ve got to say the commercially-motivated FOIs seem to me among the more important. This legislation (along with e.g. European procurement regulation) plays an important role in limiting cronyism and therefore promoting genuine openness in the expenditure of public money.

  4. anna notaro Says:

    Interestingly, former Prime Minister Tony Blair made it clear in his memoirs that introducing the FOI Act and thus helping to supply heavier ammunition to his enemies was one of his major regrets about his premiership. One could argue there might be other (regrets) but there you have it..

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