Successes and costs of freedom of information, says MoJ

Martin Rosenbaum
Freedom of information specialist

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Sir Gus O'DonnellImage source, bbc
Image caption,
The out-going Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell

The outgoing Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell thinks freedom of information has gone too far in eroding a confidential "safe space" for ministerial policy discussions.

But this view doesn't seem to be universally shared within the civil service.

This is reinforced by a report issued today by the Ministry of Justice, which assesses how the Freedom of Information Act has been working in practice.

Views within public authorities on whether FOI has a damaging "chilling effect" on frank discussion and minuting of meetings appear to be very mixed, according to a study commissioned by the ministry.


Some officials state that FOI has forced them to adopt "better record management" and internal communications are now "more formal and professional". Others interviewed report that internal messages have become "less detailed and informative".

This diverse picture fits with previous research conducted by University College, London, which similarly found both positive accounts of records being "more thorough and focused" and negative ones that they were becoming "less detailed and more anodyne". A mixed impression is also given by the latest UCL analysis of the impact of FOI on local councils.

This issue is just one point that quickly stands out from a lengthy and detailed document, which will need to be disgested at greater length.


The report also seeks to evaluate the performance of FOI against the objectives of openness, accountability, improved decision-making and public participation, as well as examining the administrative burden imposed on public authorities.

The MoJ refers to the "successes" of FOI, but says they "do not come without cost". It raises the balance between these two factors with the following element within its conclusions:

"The Government's commitment to transparency stands alongside its commitment to reduce regulatory burdens. A question worthy of consideration is whether the current FOIA regime strikes the right balance between those two objectives."

This is the first stage in the process of "post-legislative scrutiny" of the Freedom of Information Act about to be undertaken by the House of Commons Justice Committee. The committee will now consider the ministry's memorandum along with evidence from other interested parties, as it examines how well the law has been operating.

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