More on freedom of information

April 15, 2015

More on the concept of freedom of information.

I read an interesting article dealing with the Freedom of Information (FOI) law in the United Kingdom[1]. Interestingly, this law only came into force 10 years ago[2] but, unsurprisingly, took nine years to get that point. It deals with accessing information held by “public authorities”, the equivalent of our state, local, and federal government.

Listen to a familiar observation:

“[T]he Freedom of Information law has been met with resistance. Local governments in particular complain that they lack the resources to process a growing volume of requests.”

Just what are those costs? The article does acknowledge it is “impossible to calculate precisely” the cost of compliance with the law, but reports that one estimate, at the local authority level, indicates that the cost to these local authorities is about $46 million per year. Rough estimates at the national level were at over $20 million per year (neither of the surveys appear to have netted out the fees paid by those requesting FOI research and copies). But, just looking at the national level, the author discloses that this represented only 0.0019% of the entire UK budget, or less than taxpayer payments for the annual travels of Prince Andrew.

In the US, we also hear about the costs to governments to reply to these requests, some of which certainly are a silly as this one received in the UK – “How many residents in Sutton own an ostrich?”. But there is more to government opposition, here and in the UK, than costs and silliness.

In the UK, the existence of FOI has had results that, to say the least, make elected and appointed officials uncomfortable:

In one case a local council that was spending thousands of dollars every year sending a delegation to Japan for a flower festival stopped doing it when it realized that a FOI disclose meant they “couldn’t justify doing” this.

One FOI request led to a parliamentary expense scandal in 2009. This scandal resulted in the imprisonment of five members of Parliament and two members of the House of Lords.

A more recent FOI request disclosed that one national minister was spending over $100,000 year on tea and biscuits.

Any wonder why governments, including my own here in the United States, are not keen on expanding these laws or, frankly, even seeing that they are properly adhered to?

[1] Bryony Clarke, “From A to Z (Asteroids to Zombies), the British Just Want the Facts, International New York Times, April 11, 2015.

[2] The US FOIA’s history dates back to the 1970s.

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