Freedom of Information

A belated Happy Birthday to the Freedom of Information Act which was 10 years old last month. There is little doubt that the Act has made a big difference to how public sector bodies deal with the press and public.

Organisations are now aware that every move they make, every email they send and every invoice they sign off could easily end up in the public domain. Journalists are often using FOI requests as fishing expeditions, making very broad inquiries in the hope that the information they receive will contain some nugget that they can make a story out of. Most newspapers have at least one story each day which is the direct result of the FOI Act.

One of the highest profile FOI stories came in 2009 when the Daily Telegraph used the Act to publish a series of damming articles on the scandal of MP’s expenses.

However, the law of unintended consequences means that there is a downside to all this. A  little while back I was doing some work with a national public sector organisation and needed to make a lengthy train journey. The bizarre nature of Britain’s rail system meant that I could have booked a first class ticket at a significantly lower cost than the standard class fare. But I was told that I had to get the (more expensive) standard class ticket because of fears that the organisation would receive an FOI request asking how many 1st class journeys had been made.

Local authorities and other public sector organisations need to take care in how they manage FOI requests. Many responses often find their way, directly or indirectly, into the media so it makes sense to take the same sort of care that you would with any other press inquiry. And always remember; don’t put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want to see reported in the media!

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