Transparency but Blinkered

Transparency regulations introduced at the beginning of this century were supposed to make a significant change. Here we are two decades later and has it made the difference that it was supposed to make? In essence the public has the right to see information recorded by councils that was denied to them before the change. This includes County, Town and Parish councils. Open and transparent government is the watchword for modern times but have these authorities embraced the regulations and do they really understand what they need to do to comply. As far as I can see, in some instances, the publication of documents has been reactive rather than proactive. In others I cannot see that it has made much of a difference.

Should you worry about whether your authority is complying? I believe we have a duty to make sure that our Councils comply with the regulations. If you do not, how do you know that someone else will. In my opinion I cannot see there is very much policing of some councils.

You have a right to see these documents because the law says so.

In its White Paper which preceded the Freedom of Information Act the government at that time stated.

“Openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state. This White Paper marks a watershed in the relationship between the government and people of the United Kingdom. At last there is a government ready to trust the people with a legal right to information.”

Although the Freedom of Information Act 2000 promotes public access to information held by public authorities, not all information is available to be published, but the restrictions are not too onerous and are, in my opinion, realistic.

So what can you expect to see? The problem is that there is a difference between what an authority is obliged to publish and what you can request. The Information Commissioners Office website has this statement which I have copied.

  • public authorities are obliged to publish certain information about their activities; and
  • members of the public are entitled to request information from public authorities. “

So what does that mean. It means that unless the information is covered by the publication obligation then it may not be published. I believe that the authorities covered by the regulation should be saying whenever it produces a document “should we publish this?” It is not difficult. It should not be up to the public to demand to see certain information.

The following statement is taken from the website ‘Ask Your Council’

“The Freedom of Information Act requires every public authority to adopt and maintain a publication scheme which has been approved by the Information Commissioner, and to publish information in accordance with the scheme.”

So some questions;

  • does your local authority have a publication scheme and have you read it
  • if it does not have a publication scheme then why not and was this recognised at the council’s last audit.

The ICO goes on to quote from the Freedom of Information Act on who is covered and what is open for publication.

“Public authorities include government departments, local authorities, the NHS, state schools and police forces. However, the Act does not necessarily cover every organisation that receives public money. For example, it does not cover some charities that receive grants and certain private sector organisations that perform public functions. Recorded information includes printed documents, computer files, letters, emails, photographs, and sound or video recordings.”

So how do you recognise that the authority has something that should be in the public view. Well you have to do some legwork. The authority will have a website which you should visit and read the information therein. Was there something that has been recorded and not published which would be of interest to the community. Was something mentioned in the minutes which resulted in a document being produced, letter, email report etc and was that document published.

If not you need to request the information, I believe that the initial request should be informal and if the request is rejected the next request should be formal under the Freedom of Information Act. The ‘Ask Your Council’ website has a guide wording. Why should the initial request be informal. Having looked at the information on the web some of it is very much a surprise to me. The same could be said for the authority that has omitted publishing a document. An oversight rather than an attempt to avoid publication.

I believe that the public must take an interest in what the authority does, else how does it know it is doing things that it should. If it says it will do something then how do you know that is done if you cannot see the documents which evidenced that action and was it done in the way that was agreed? Ask questions and request information. If you are denied the information then you can raise a complaint to the Information Commissioner.

I notice from a friend on Facebook that the Highways Authority are driving a dual carriage way though a very pretty part of the country. This is part of a far longer road providing a direct link between two towns which for the last 120 years or so, since cars started to be built, have existed quite happily without such a link. That is not my point. My point is that the local authority have signed a secrecy agreement with the Highways Authority so that they will know details of the route in advance of the public. A question; under transparency regulations can the authority do that and if they do record any details of the route don’t they need to publish then? Answers on a postcard!