Friday, November 10, 2017

Freedom of information declines in the UK

The UK publishes comprehensive statistics on the operation of its Freedom of Information Act, covering request volumes, timeliness, and success rates. An article in The Economist highlights the disappointing trend in the latter, with more refusals:

Attempts to obtain the Brexit studies under freedom of information (FOI) requests, which are used by the public to access information from roughly 100,000 public bodies, were rejected. That is increasingly the norm. Between 2010 and 2016 the share of FOI requests that were granted in full by the central government fell from 57% to 46% (see chart).

One often-cited explanation is the increasing complexity of requests. When the FOI law came into force in 2005, the thinking goes, requesters sought the low-hanging fruit, such as details of MPs’ travel expenses. Over time they made trickier demands, which met refusal. Yet if this were so, one would expect a rise in the proportion of rejections that were attributed to excessive cost (departments can refuse requests that would cost more than £600—$785—or take more than 24 hours, to complete). In fact it has barely budged.

A likelier reason is that civil servants have become more wary. Almost every department is refusing requests more often. And they are clamming up in other ways, says Gavin Freeguard of the Institute for Government, a think-tank. Departments are supposed to publish monthly figures on their costs over £25,000. In 2010 roughly half of them published these data on time. By late 2016, only a quarter did. Biannual releases detailing civil servants’ pay and rank have become similarly tardy.

The Economist lays this clearly at the feet of the UK's politicians, who have consistently attacked the FOIA as being somehow "bad" for "good government" (meaning: "inconvenient for corrupt, secretive, incompetent politicians). The UK's public servants are clearly getting this message loud and clear.

Sadly, we won't be able to get any similar story about New Zealand. While SSC has finally started collecting statistics on OIA requests, it only covers volumes and timeliness, not outcomes. Which means we won't get to see whether National's similar opposition to the OIA has had a similar effect on decisions in New Zealand. But we have a new government now, one which has a specific Associate Minister for Open Government. So maybe they could walk the talk and start actually measuring how open we really are?