Is one council about to turn Freedom of Information on its head for the greater good?

(updated to add in just how old the Harrow idea is – and also some reaction from the excellent FOIMan)

I’m a little late to this story – but it is potentially very exciting so thought I’d blog about it anyway.

As we know, there are many within local government who grumble about the cost of Freedom of Information, and their argument has gained extra momentum as budgets are squeezed everywhere.

The cuts might be bad, but it does appear a sizeable number of councillors and council bosses are seeking to find a silver lining by locking down access to FOI because, in their eyes, it just costs too much (and is rather intrusive).

I’ve argued, as have many FOI officers and journalists, that a good way to slash the FOI bill would be to be more open in the first place – and stop diverting people down the FOI route as soon as they ask a question. Publishing disclosure logs detailing what others have asked for would be a good start.

In Harrow, however, doing that doesn’t appear to be enough. They want to eliminate the cost of FOI … by making anything which could be released under FOI available by default.

So instead of councils holding information until someone asks for it, and then deciding whether it should be released, the council would only withhold from its website the information which it felt couldn’t be released.

The full details are here in a story from The Lawyer. 

Admittedly, the story is a year old, so the question has to be asked about how far they’ve gone down this track – but it’s good to see/hear that the idea of being more open was/is actually discussed at senior levels in at least one council. FOIMan has pointed out to me his blog from the time – which points out the many problems this would pose.

To quote the council’s head of legal, Hugh Peart:

“The default model for most councils is that we won’t give anything away unless we have to,” said Peart. “I want to turn the whole edifice on its head. I want us to move away from the defensive position of keeping everything to ­ourselves. I want to say that everything’s public except for a few obvious areas.”

To work, it needs a brilliant indexing system which helps people find the information they are after, but it’s an exciting idea which has the potential to turn the attitude of local government towards FOI on its head.

Of course, it wouldn’t entirely eliminate the cost of FOI – the public surely retains the right to challenge withheld information – but it is perhaps the most exciting FOI idea to come out of local government I’ve ever heard of.

Will it happen? Who knows. Will there be many in local government – especially politicians – who hope it doesn’t? I would imagine so. Good luck Harrow.

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