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Perverse incentives

Martin Rosenbaum | 10:44 UK time, Friday, 27 October 2006

Jack Straw made clear in the Commons yesterday his lack of enthusiasm (to put it mildly) for freedom of information. Straw has been one of those Cabinet ministers pushing strongly for FOI to be restricted, as the government is now planning to do.

The government proposals have continued to face criticism this week, including at a meeting of the DCA's consultative FOI Users' Group on Wednesday. It will be interesting to see if the normally somewhat limited minutes of this group are any more informative for Wednesday's meeting.

But one factor which doesn't seem to have figured much so far in the debate on these proposals is whether they will give public authorities perverse incentives and create loopholes.

The proposal to include consideration and consultation time in assessing costs could encourage authorities to adopt deliberately convoluted procedures in order to push difficult requests over the limit. It would mean that inefficient authorities with wasteful processes will be better able to avoid embarrassing disclosures than decisive and efficient ones.

This perverse incentive is not so true in the case of including reading time, since that is more easily measured in a standard way. However consideration and consultation are clearly indefinitely extendable.

The aggregation proposal also runs the risk of perverse incentives. I have already noticed how occasionally government departments will designate what I or a colleague think of as a simple 'business-as-usual' request as an FOI request. I assume they do this to help improve their statistics on the numbers answered within 20 working days.

Under the goverment's new aggregation proposal, authorities could seize on say any emailed requests to their press office from a media organisation, designate them as FOI requests, and (as long as they take up enough time) use that tactic to then block any real FOI request from that media organisation for the next three months.

I would not expect this to happen with most public authorities, but it would give a potential loophole to those particularly obstructive ones which are least willing to accept a new culture of more open government.

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 12:42 PM on 29 Oct 2006,
  • Mark Durant wrote:

Every written request for information that includes an address (such as an email autosignature) comes under FOI. In effect, there is no such "thing" as an FOI request - hence the reason why other requests (such as the "business as usual" ones as you say) are treated as such. Nothing wrong with that. But it also shows why the new costing proposals stink - and make it worse than before the Act. Either a Government is open or it is not - and #35m for openness, against a tax take of hundreds of billions is a piffling amount to find out how our money is spent.

  • 2.
  • At 01:01 PM on 20 Nov 2006,
  • Sentimental Pragmatist wrote:

A 'business-as-usual' request? Don't make me laugh!! There's no such thing to a Journalist, and here's why...

Journo: Arright mate, can you give me some gen about that little meeting the other week? What was decided..?

Office Wallah: Sorry, that would bias the full process, so it's off limits at the moment.

Journo: Really? You wanna bet?? (reaches for special FOI Request crayons)

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