How to reduce the FOI burden on local government

Secret

(photo is: Secret Comedy Podcast 06 – 2 August 2013 by Amnesty International UK used under CC BY 2.0)

 

As reported by the Press Gazette, the LGA has provided evidence to the Freedom of Information Commission [PDF].

The LGA is disappointingly negative about FOIA, seeing it as a a cost to authorities rather than a boon to their communities.

It prompted me to get round to a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for a while, reflecting on my experience of making an FOIA request to every council in the country.

Asking for data

I wanted to know some things about the usage of council websites. I wrote a report about websites based on this data.

It is reasonably trivial to run a mailmerge and issue an email to every council and I was conscious that this would generate work in each authority so I tried to pick a small number of datapoints that it would be easy to obtain.

I’ve never issued an FOIA request before (though I’ve answered plenty) and I did feel a bit of a sense of guilt/fear when I pressed go.

This was assuaged somewhat by receiving a response within an hour (well done Cardiff) and exacerbated by receiving a call from a web manager apparently wanting to know what lay behind my request. I was a bit taken aback but when other people contacted me (in a less defensive way) I wrote a blog post explaining what I was up to.

Not that bad in the end

And I have to say the vast majority of councils responded promptly and in an extremely helpful manner. A small minority had a much more defensive attitude and some councils attached very restrictive licences to the data (despite the obligation, in England and Wales, to provide datasets under open licences).

A very small number (sadly I didn’t keep an accurate count of this) of councils responded to say “We already publish this”. Now to be honest, it was less convenient to me when they did this because it usually involved me in more work. But I was still delighted because it’s clearly such a sensible thing to to.

Gold star goes to East Sussex who just give you the login details of read-only account for their Google Analytics account.

It would be easy to publish this

It is technically trivial to publish data from Google Analytics (the tool used by the majority of councils). Website data is not secret, not personal and its publication is of benefit to the sector and potentially to the wider community.

And if it had been published the cost to the public sector of my report would have been marginal to nothing.

In fact the only reason not to publish this data is a cultural inclination not to tell people stuff.

The way to reduce the FOIA “burden” on local government is to answer people’s questions before they ask them.

And if local government routinely published its non-personal data then it would have a stronger argument when raising concerns about the cost of FOIA compliance.

What the evidence tells us

In fact the LGA evidence to the FOIA Commission reveals a sector stuck in a suspicious, closed, and secretive culture.

 

Which suggests, of course, we need the FOIA even more than before.

Oh. And and what chance do closed, suspicious, secretive organisations have of being effective in the digital age?

(Don’t answer that)

2 thoughts on “How to reduce the FOI burden on local government”

  1. In my experience with Telford and Wrekin Council, if their Planners had answered my simple question emailed in June, then I would not have submitted an FOI request to obtain the same information, in December. This currently also remains unanswered (merely acknowledged).

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