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« +++Climate sensitivity is low+++ | Main | Sea level and the diving horses »
Tuesday
Dec182012

Curbs on FOI

The government is considering introducing curbs on FOI requests:

Changes to the cost cap on requests could radically cut the proportion of requests under the FOI legislation that are answered.

Other changes would allow officials to add into the cost their “thinking time” when deciding to give answers further limiting the information that would be released.

One proposal would stop reporters from the same media group from making requests that cost more than £450 or £600 in the same three month period.

Previously the cost limit only applied to the actual requests for information, and not to the person asking for the information.

The latter idea in particular is astonishingly daft. The idea that you should effectively incentivise civil servants to think more slowly almost defies belief.

Some of the biggest brains in Whitehall might seize up completely.

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Reader Comments (24)

The irony is that we hear these reports through the pre-Levenson media. That is wrong we should not listen. It is in the pre-Levenson media interest to be defensive about controlling their vicissitudes.

We will hear only the proper news in the future when the controlling laws are in place ;)

We must wait.

I mean for god’s sake today we can still hear people saying something nice about homeopathy that would annoy Ben Goldacre. We know everything Ben Goldacre says is the truth so why let them say this?

Again sometime you can hear someone sing a song that places the universe too young in cosmological history but Simon Singh can correct it and get that song changed in the new future;)

I suggest we shouldn't worry about the past, present or future when it is all well known to our betters.

We will be told the shape of the past, present or future in time ;)

Why trouble ourselves with the ability to FOI?

Dec 18, 2012 at 11:21 PM | Registered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

The "thinking time" provision could sort out the "not very bright" within the academics. Could they be fired due to their limited thinking abilities?

Dec 18, 2012 at 11:24 PM | Unregistered Commentereyesonu

Is there a government that doesn't wish its FOI laws would go away?

Transparency is a cute idea badly suited for conventional political machinery. Like democracy in general, our freedom to ask may be created in legislation but destroyed in regulation. You do not have to say "no" to someone, just make the receipt of permission impossible.

Dec 18, 2012 at 11:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterDoug Proctor

Civil servants and the concept of thinking are diametrically opposed.

Dec 18, 2012 at 11:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterStreetcred

More detailed info. here from the Campaign for FOI:

http://www.cfoi.org.uk/foi181212pr.html

http://www.cfoi.org.uk/pdf/foipostlegscrutiny_cfoicommentgovtresp.pdf

Dec 19, 2012 at 12:04 AM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

I would have thought that the source of FOI requests is, in principle, wholly independent of the merits of the request.

I also thought that there was already a clause designed to discourage vexatious requests. Is it being suggested that certain "media groups" (whatever that may mean) are engaging in vexatious requests, but that it cannot be proven?

And who in the government is doing the "considering" about changing the law, I wonder? Perhaps publicly identifying the source of vexatious requests might be reasonable? I don't know.

Dec 19, 2012 at 1:33 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

michael hart

"Perhaps publicly identifying the source of vexatious requests might be reasonable? I don't know."

There is probably a point of balance here. If I were objecting to the new railway line HS2, a single request for infomation regarding the route in my locality might be regarded as reasonable. A campaign to encourage every householder along the route to make a similar request might be regarded as vexatious.

The same issue came up regarding the Climate Research Unit. One activist made repeated requests for essentially the same information, as part of an attempt to flood the unit with FOIs and disrupt its normal work. Consider it the bureaucratic equivalent of a "denial of service" attack on a website.

As a taxpayer I like the idea of a limit on the time an official should be expected to spend answering FOIs. That official may be a public servant, but we are paying him to do his job, not act as a free information service.

Dec 19, 2012 at 2:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

@Entropic Man
"As a taxpayer I like the idea of a limit on the time an official should be expected to spend answering FOIs. That official may be a public servant, but we are paying him to do his job, not act as a free information service"
It's the limit of time that I find very difficult to get to grips with, EM.
Time can be duration - that period that has elapsed between the start and finish of a task or it can be the summation of increments of time actually devoted to the task in question. The latter will, in general, bear no relation to the former and relies on the accuracy of reporting these increments.
The problem is highly dependent upon the efficiency and effectiveness of those employed to perform these tasks. This issue is not easily reconciled with reality.
Taking an example from my own expertise, a skilled programmer can often solve an issue within minutes that could take a less-experienced 'fixer' weeks, if ever, to resolve.
When the cost of implementation is brought to the table, the whole thing becomes a thing of beauty if a determination to avoid FOI is desired.
Better to get rid of FOI altogether rather than defang and emasculate it so it shrivels into oblivion.
No need to agonise whether or not a request is vexatious.

First they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Be careful what you wish for friend!

Dec 19, 2012 at 3:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterRotFOMR

Entropic:

"The same issue came up regarding the Climate Research Unit. One activist made repeated requests for essentially the same information, as part of an attempt to flood the unit with FOIs and disrupt its normal work"

I think you have this wrong - please can you supply the specifics to support your claim?

Dec 19, 2012 at 3:46 AM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Entropic man, if we could all see the wording of the multiple requests then we wouldn't have to take somebody else's word for it and we could decide for ourselves.

On the other hand, as an indirect reward for making one or more FOI requests before climate-gate, Tallbloke got a visit from the Law and had his computers confiscated.

Dec 19, 2012 at 4:07 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Mr. Entropic, you must be unaware of the factual history of climate science FOI issues for UEA/CRU. Before any FOI request had been filed there had been years of stonewalling, deception, and obfuscation. The FOI requests only began when informal requests (any/all of which could have been quickly fulfilled with a website FTP folder) failed to obtain reasonable results. Neither before nor after the FOI requests began was there any good reason that requests should affect CRU and "disrupt its normal work" -- the requests to date could have been fulfilled easily and quickly. The time wasting has all been on the part of CRU/UEA officials seeking to evade scientific and FOI duties of honesty, accuracy, and transparency.

A sampling of CRU's sordid history in the matter is here:

Climate Audit thread on Climategate 2 and the foia mole

Dec 19, 2012 at 5:46 AM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

That's because they have so much to hide.

it's taken me 5 years to get this estimate.

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171766_263808.pdf Page 4.

4,700,000 million (4.7 trillion) pounds hidden off the government accounts.

That's your pension. They have spent all the contributions and now have a 4.7 trillion debt. Given the tax take is only 0.55 trillion, they can't pay it. That's why they want to hide it.

Dec 19, 2012 at 9:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterNick

Can we take it that the reason for the proposal to include the cost of "thinking time" is because thinking is something new and problematic for bureaucrats?

Dec 19, 2012 at 9:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

Re: Entropic man

The same issue came up regarding the Climate Research Unit. One activist made repeated requests for essentially the same information, as part of an attempt to flood the unit with FOIs and disrupt its normal work.

A request was made to CRU for data. It was refused on the basis that some of the data was covered by confidentiality agreements. No information was provided by the CRU about what countries they had the confidentiality agreements for. This was a similar response to one received from the Met Office.

A decision was then made to submit requests, 5 countries at a time, asking for details of any confidentiality agreements. Every effort was made to ensure that no countries or requests were duplicated. Had a single request been made for all countries then the CRU would probably have refused claiming some of the confidentiality agreements where confidential.

The CRU where unable to produce any confidentiality agreements that would have prevented them from handing over the data.

Dec 19, 2012 at 10:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

Entropic man @2:22 AM

Well... if Civil / Public Servants were honest, honorable and efficient you might have a valid point.

Another small bit of evidence that supports the view that FoI needs actual teeth

Assertion that Civil Servants need extra thinking time to deal with FoI caused an outbreak of hilarity at morning coffee break down here.

Dec 19, 2012 at 10:24 AM | Registered Commentertomo

Entropic man Jones of CRU was plaining to avoid FOI requests BEFORE then even got one , in fact the numbers before the leak where tiny considering what the situation . Their current FOI issues are very much of their own making brought on by their obstruction and lying.

Dec 19, 2012 at 11:03 AM | Unregistered CommenterKnR

The Coalition Programme for Government, which you can download (PDF) here:
http://www.direct.gov.uk/prod_consum_dg/groups/dg_digitalassets/@dg/@en/documents/digitalasset/dg_187876.pdf

says in section 3. "CIVIL LIBERTIES"

" We will extent the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater
transparency"

I guess this is another U turn...

Dec 19, 2012 at 11:22 AM | Unregistered Commenterdave ward

From the Ecclesiastical Uncle, an old retired bureaucrat in a field only remotely related to climate with minimal qualifications and only half a mind.

This superannuated geriatric ex-bureaucrat now sees value in the FOI principle. But I observe that providing answers was always a diversion from organizational purpose and therefore a waste of the bureaucrat’s organization’s funds.

But the sober reflections of retirement lead to the thought that it is a necessary waste.

However, notwithstanding the glory there is in the principal that publically funded bureaucratic effort should be open and transparent, that part of society that funds the buraeucrat’s efforts looses when he answers, and receipt of the answer confers a benefit on the enquirer, or his part of society, pressure group or interest or what ever. So equitable public accounting should require the transfer of value to be reflected in a payment going in the other direction.

I am surprised that the speculation is that FOI requests be curtailed rather than paid for. It is should be up to the requester to consider whether the information he seeks will be worth what it will cost him rather than have the bureaucrat slither out of the obligation to come clean by appealing to some arbitrary cost limit.

And another thought. The purpose of the original bureaucratic effort will not have been to answer future FOI requests and the information requested will therefore not be organized for that purpose - or in the average case, at all. The requester should be able to ask for the requested information to be massaged into comprehensible form provided he is prepared to pay for the work. However, many FOI requests could be more or less answered for virtually nothing where the requester is satisfied with a jumble of disorganized papers. That would leave the requester the task and cost of reducing chaos to the answer he seeks. He should have to pay if he wants that done by the bureaucrat’s organization.

There are nice practical problems involved in all this of course, and judicial time spent resolving disputes should always cost one or other, or maybe both, litigants.

Dec 19, 2012 at 4:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterEcclesiastical Uncle

As the bureaucrat's organisation is already paid for in part by the individual requester, he would therefore be obliged to pay twice over for what should be publicly available information. The bureaucrat and his organisation are supposed to be the servants of the people (alright, don't laugh....)

Dec 19, 2012 at 5:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterMessenger

From the Ecclesiastical Uncle, an old retired bureaucrat in a field only remotely related to climate with minimal qualifications and only half a mind.

Messenger

Beg to differ. The bureaucrat’s organization is funded for a purpose and finds itself doing what it does to achieve that purpose. Of course, it has a duty to tell the public what it has done, but is not funded to do so, because, of course, it is impossible to predict what part – if any - of its activities will excite outside interest.. So answering FOI requests will usually consume funds provided for the bureaucracy’s actual purposes.

And I would not want to pay the additional tax required to fund the extra workload required to ensure every activity in all government bureaucracies is carried out in a way that would mean that any FOI request could be readily answered without further ado, and it would be a disgraceful waste of public funds if bureaucracies habitually carried out their work in such a way that this were possible. They should just get on and do what they are established to do – at minimum effort and cost – and, if, you want to know about it – then you should pay for the digging...

Dec 20, 2012 at 7:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterEcclesiastical Uncle

Restricting FOI is like blowing up a village to save it.

Dec 21, 2012 at 4:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

The response in Australia where an agency is receiving repetitive requests for the same information is to give the agency the ability to post that information online and simply direct the individual seeking the information to the link. Of course, this is highly undesirable when your main objective is opacity.

Likewise, I would wager that the UK FOI Act has provisions for vexatious requests as similar provisions exist in most other nations' laws.

See how easy it is to deal with these problems? What are these people hiding?

Dec 21, 2012 at 5:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames inPerth

Please note that BiasBBC has changed its address -

Was http://biased-bbc.blogspot.com/

Now it is http://biasedbbc.org/

It took me a while to re-find it
Please pass it on.

Dec 21, 2012 at 8:41 PM | Unregistered Commentertckev

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