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FOI or E-Enabled Open Government?

Martin Rosenbaum | 10:59 UK time, Friday, 19 December 2008

We could be heading for an era of 'E-Enabled Open Government' in the world of freedom of information in the UK.

That anyway is according to a new book, Constitutional Futures Revisited, which predicts the future of constitutional change in the UK. The authors of the chapter on FOI, Mark Glover and Sarah Holsen, argue that a scenario of 'government on the web' with an emphasis on proactive disclosure of information by public authorities is the most sustainable scenario, satisfying both government and openness advocates.

But they do point out that this is set against an international trend towards 'a gradual weakening of the FOI law through administrative or legislative means'.

If public authorities do move towards much greater proactive disclosure, then one vehicle should be their publication schemes. The Information Commissioner is introducing a new model scheme from 1 January 2009, which public authorities will have to abide by (the BBC has just revamped its FOI site here).

The current pattern of proactive disclosure certainly seems to throw up all sorts of apparent anomalies. For example, if you want to know about cases where judges have imposed unduly lenient sentences, the full detail is available - name of judge, details of the initial and the increased sentence, nature of offence, etc. But suppose you wanted comparable information for sentences reduced on appeal. Some overall statistics are available (and admittedly there are many more cases), but nothing like the same level of detail - and the Courts Service has refused to provide it to the BBC.

Glover and Holsen do see alternative possible scenarios of 'Death by a Thousand Cuts' (in which FOI is starved of resources) or 'Legal Trench Warfare' (in which government resists disclosures in every way).

Of course some requesters will feel they are living through such experiences already. This week the BBC received an apology from the National Offender Management Service, now part of the Ministry of Justice, which had spent several months claiming that it was considering the public interest in releasing certain items of information - information which it then turned out it did not actually possess.

The letter of apology to my colleague Nicola Beckford stated: 'The lapse in the handling of your request was caused by a breakdown in our procedures. This resulted in officials being mistaken in judging that information existed when it did not.'

I have discussed the topic of 'NOMS and the ontological problem' previously. NOMS has a particularly bad reputation for its requests and records management, but perhaps it hasn't quite got to the point of the German government. A few days ago it was reported that the German government has lost more than 300 files that are so top secret no-one knows what was in them.

But whatever the problems that sometimes crop up with freedom of information, the latest MoJ quarterly statistics on FOI out this week indicate that the number of requests to central government bodies is remarkably stable, perhaps even slightly increasing.

This suggests that freedom of information is not so pointless that people are giving up on it, nor so fruitful that people are wanting to use it much more. And my view is that things are likely to continue in this way for the moment, whatever scenarios may appear in the future. Personally I'm going to be concentrating on some other projects at the BBC for the next three months or so. I may continue to post on this blog from time to time, but it will be more intermittent.


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