Britain’s Freedom of Information Act has established itself as a potent tool to scrutinize the work of public authorities but it also has, in some cases, revealed the absurdity of public whim.
LONDON — The requests come in to local councils with great regularity: “How many residents in Sutton own an ostrich?” “What procedures are in place for a zombie invasion of Cumbria?” “How many people have been banned from Birmingham Library because they smell?”
In Wigan, the council was asked what plans were in place to protect the town from a dragon attack, while Worthing Borough Council had to outline its preparations for an asteroid crash. Rossendale Council, meanwhile, had to account for all the times it had “paid for the services of an exorcist, psychic or religious healer.”
Government secrecy had long been a hallmark of Britain, where neither laws nor traditions made it easy to obtain the documents and records that are the underpinnings of any bureaucracy. But a decade ago, the doors were swung wide open to allow the sunshine of public scrutiny into agencies, bureaus and councils, and the result has been gratifying — and slightly alarming.
While Britain’s Freedom of Information Act has established itself as a potent tool to scrutinize the work of public authorities and hold those in power accountable, it has also had some expensive consequences — and, in some cases, revealed the absurdity of public whim.
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The hundreds of thousands of requests that have been received at various levels of government in the past decade have been time-consuming for agencies and councils and proved extremely costly. And at a time of tight budgets and controversy over government spending, some are balking.
Such, though, is the side effect of transparency, say the proponents of open government, who also argue that the benefits outweigh the burdens.
“What people often forget is just how much FOI saves money, because it exposes wasteful and extravagant spending,” said Paul Gibbons, a freedom-of-information campaigner and blogger. “Just one example: A local council in Scotland was spending thousands every year sending a delegation to Japan for a flower festival. Once FOI came into force, they quickly realized they couldn’t justify doing that.”
Heather Brooke, a British-American journalist and University of Washington graduate who used the government-access law in 2009 to obtain details of the expenses of members of Parliament, said she had earlier found a stark difference from the United States. Though information in the United States is frequently held back from reporters by federal, state or local governments, it is often done in defiance of an overall philosophy, if not actual laws, supporting the public’s right to know.
In Britain, when she requested information that she had routinely accessed in the United States — such as public officials’ names or salaries — “it was as though I’d asked for the keys to a nuclear bunker,” she said. “Not just a ‘no,’ but a disbelief that I’d had the temerity to even ask.”
It was Tony Blair, then a young opposition leader poised to take the reins of government, who pioneered freedom-of-information legislation in Britain.
“We want to end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surrounds government activity and make information available to the public,” he said in 1996.
It took nine years, but the law finally came into force on Jan. 1, 2005, permitting anyone to request and obtain information held by the public authorities.
Blair would later lament that this was one of his greatest mistakes in office, accusing the FOI of being “utterly undermining of sensible government.”
“Freedom of information,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, “A Journey.”
“Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.”
But Lord David Clark of Windermere, the Cabinet minister in Blair’s government who drafted the Freedom of Information bill, said he remained happy that he was able to do so. “The law was long overdue — Britain was among the last in a long line of Western countries to adopt FOI,” he said. “For me, a society where ordinary citizens couldn’t access information held by politicians just seemed incompatible with a mature democracy.”
In the decade since its adoption, the FOI Act has been exposing incompetence, inefficiency and even corruption across more than 100,000 public bodies. Financial reports, expenses records, meeting minutes and private email correspondence have all been dragged into the public domain.
According to the Ministry of Justice, more than 400,000 requests have been made under the FOI Act since its implementation, and central government bodies are now receiving almost 1,000 requests a week.
A slew of political scandals have come to light under the act. It was Brooke’s FOI request that ultimately led to the parliamentary-expenses scandal in 2009, resulting in the imprisonment of five Labour members of Parliament and two Conservative peers.
More recently, Jeremy Hunt, the current health secretary who formerly was culture secretary, was embroiled in controversy after FOI requests revealed his close relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire during News Corp’s approximately $12 billion bid for the broadcaster BSkyB. And Eric Pickles, the minister for communities and local government, landed in hot water for spending about $110,000 on tea and biscuits in a single year.
Still, the Freedom of Information Act has been met with resistance. Local governments in particular complain they lack the resources to process a growing volume of requests.
At Buckinghamshire County Council, workers last year spent 11,276 hours handling more than 1,700 requests, costing the taxpayers more than $400,000. The leader of the council, Martin Tett, complained of the cost in “times of austerity.”
“People think we have all the information they want in a handy Word file and all we have to do is press ‘send,’ ” said Claire Park, leader of the Information Compliance team. “They don’t understand how council systems work and just how long it takes to answer requests.”
Blair and Clark envisioned ordinary citizens primarily using the act. But according to Park, a substantial proportion of requests come from corporations “asking about subcontracting opportunities and so on.”
But the act is also used to indulge perverse curiosities.
“I’ve seen requests on our contingency plans for alien invasions, zombie attacks and all sorts,” said Gareth Cosslett, a communications adviser at Cumbria County Council. “Some people will send these same questions to all the local councils; you can practically sense the roll of the eyes and the sigh from FOI officers up and down the country, but we have to answer them.”
The authorities do not have to respond to what are described in the law, vaguely, as “vexatious” requests: those seeking information of a “frivolous” nature or deliberately aimed at disrupting the work of an authority. But Cosslett said local governments are wary of applying this clause too often because “it risks incurring the wrath of the information commissioner.”
The expense of freedom of information is impossible to calculate precisely. A 2010 survey of the local authorities by University College London estimated responding to FOI requests cost councils $46 million annually. On the national level, rough estimates can be made using research from Frontier Economics, which calculated an individual FOI request takes an average 7.5 hours and costs about $430 to process. Between October 2013 and September 2014, central government departments received 48,727 requests, which would put the approximate annual cost of FOI at more than $20 million.
Still, as advocates point out, that represents about 0.0019 percent of the budget — and $20 million is less than what the British taxpayer has paid for the travel expenses of Prince Andrew, the duke of York. Also, it often pays for itself, they say, in exposing corruption or unreasonable public spending.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which promotes the law, said some councils “resent it because it complicates their lives for what they see as dubious purposes.”
He added: “But while it can be a drudge sometimes, it is making authorities more open, more accountable, and is making our public services run better. We mustn’t lose sight of its value.”