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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