Thursday, January 14, 2010

OIA review: Timeframes

The law Commission is currently reviewing the Official Information Act 1982 and Local Government Official Information and Meetings Acts 1987. One of the areas they're asking about is timeframes. Both the OIA and LGOIMA require that requests be dealt with

as reasonably practicable, and in no case later than 20 working days after the day on which the request is received
Unfortunately, the first part seems to have been forgotten, while the maximum time-limit has become the norm, and frequently for political reasons. By dragging out a response, Ministers and their officials can ensure that information is dead and out of the news cycle by the time it arrives.

But quite apart from the question of abuse, there is also the question of the time limit itself. That 20 day time limit was set back in the 80's, when records were kept on paper and finding the information to respond to a request was a matter of searching for and through physical files. Nowdays, it's all computerised, and the relevant information is usually only a search-engine query away. Technological change has made such a long timeframe for processing requests unjustifiable. The last review of our official information law, back in 1997, recommended that it be lowered to 15 days. Now that IT, search engines and electronic document storage have become absolutely pervasive, that should be lowered even further. But somehow, I doubt there'll be much appetite among politicians to do so. After all, what interest do they have in being able to be held quickly to account?