Every so often public officials who wish to curtail Freedom of Information rights will argue that money spent on fulfilling FOI requests might be better spent on healthcare, or fixing roads, or catching criminals.
This argument is superficially persuasive, but there are two significant counter-arguments:
- Firstly, that as taxpayers we have already ‘paid’ for the collection of information held by public authorities and have the right to access that;
- And secondly that FOI allows citizens to scrutinise how our money is being spent and highlight inefficiencies and abuse.
In other words, even if your argument is purely economic (rather than, say, about democratic accountability), Freedom of Information may save at least as much money as it costs: money which, well, might also be better spent on healthcare, or fixing roads or catching criminals.
A system in which public officials can spend money without scrutiny is a system more open to abuse and overspending. So curtailing Freedom of Information to ‘save money’ may be a false economy.
The latest weapon to be used in attacking FOI is to list how many requests are being made by businesses. St Albans Council‘s media offensive against the FOI Act, for example, mentions that:
“57 percent of the requests were from businesses, 15 percent from the national media and 13 percent from the Metropolitan Police.”
Their figures may not be entirely reliable: when Staffordshire Council released a breakdown of FOI requesters earlier this year they classified universities and even other councils as “commercial”. And two days earlier a piece put the figures at “almost 60 per cent” based on a “typical quarter” which was is in no way typical, appearing instead to be the only three months chosen for analysis.
Three weeks later St Helens Council picked up the baton, releasing a story about ‘bizarre requests’ and highlighting that:
“25 per cent of the enquiries received by the council related to commercial issues, while just over 12 per cent were from local, regional and national media outlets.”
The argument seems to be that if the information is commercially valuable, they should be paying for it.
The problem is: they already have.
Businesses, of course, pay tax too*. And of course they should: they benefit from workers educated, trained and kept safe and healthy – in some cases housed – with taxpayers’ money, travelling to work on tax-funded roads and public transport. Their businesses are protected by a tax-funded police force; their country and international trade by the tax-funded armed forces.
So they are entitled to benefit from another common good which they have contributed to: public information.
And then, when they do, sometimes it’s for the public benefit as well.
UPDATE (Nov 9 2014): Tim Turner follows up the figure of “13% of requests from the Metropolitan Police” and finds that, at best, most of those requests were actually Data Protection requests, and at worst, none could have been FOI at all:
“When I asked how many of the Met Police requests were made under Section 29 of the Data Protection Act (i.e. made explicitly under completely separate legislation), they admitted that all of them were, and any data was disclosed under that section. It’s not clear (and I probably should have asked) whether St Albans formally refused these requests under FOI before disclosing under the DPA, but I bet that they didn’t. The police were using the Data Protection Act for what the ICO’s Data Sharing Code of Practice calls a ‘disclosure’, and what is more commonly (though less accurately) known as a data sharing request. They were asking not that the data be disclosed under FOI, but that it be disclosed one data controller to another, for the purposes of conducting a criminal investigation. The idea that anyone could think that this was an FOI request is nonsense.”
UPDATE (May 23 2016): Just one example of how FOI can highlight inefficiency and save money is this report on a council that “spent up to three times as much per day on private guards to secure the buildings as it would have cost to keep them open”
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I handle FOI requests in Canada and I want to clarify what may be meant by commercial requests in your article. The requests from businesses are quite often not related to government issues but are related to business issues with other companies. I currently have a request where a labour union is suing a company for work contracted by the government. The issue seems to be that union members were not hired by the company to do the work. The records in question are invoices and time sheets which are actually the company’s records. However, the union has requested the records under FOI rather than through the court system. So you have a government spending many hours of taxpayer-paid time for a dispute between a company and a union, a dispute in which the government has no interest at all. This is routine for commercial requests, where the records requested actually belong to another commercial entity. The government only has the records for the purpose of issuing a contract, licence or permit.
Thanks Peter – interesting example. In the UK that sort of request would often be refused under ‘commercial confidentiality’ – unless there is a strong public interest which outweighs that.
In practice, with so many commercial firms now delivering public services, this leads to a lack of scrutiny, and there are moves afoot to broaden FOI to cover those firms too, so it may be your experience becomes more common over here if they don’t account for that.
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