News Analysis: Public bodies wake up to FOI dawn

A fortnight into life under the Freedom of Information Act, Sarah Robertson examines the PR challenges for public bodies and how they plan to cope with a plethora of enquiries from the media and the general public.

If anyone was expecting a barrage of top secret government information splashed across the newspapers following the implementation of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act on 1 January, they would have been disappointed.

Our introduction to life under FOI has begun gently. At the time of writing, we know who Tony Blair has been wining and dining at Chequers and that the makers of TV series Porridge were refused permission to film inside an HM prison. But the true ramifications of the act and how public bodies deal with it, will only be understood later this month. This is when the 20 days permitted to process a request expires and organisations will be expected to provide answers, according to Department for Constitutional Affairs head of comms Lucian Hudson.

The law was brought in by Labour to provide accountable and transparent public services and is hardly groundbreaking - the Swedes introduced a similar act in the 17th Century.

Heavy administration

However, many local bodies' ability to deal with FOI is doubtful, claims Citigate Communications director James Ford, who heads the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) account.

Bob Schofield, managing director at healthcare specialist Atlas Media Group, agrees: 'The state of readiness across the public sector is variable.

Monolithic organisations such as the DoH are well prepared but schools and further education colleges less so - the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), for example, does not have the same command and control.'

DfES head of press Trevor Cook says that while it has provided advice to schools and colleges, it does not have the same kind of relationship with educational establishments and LEAs that the DoH has with hospitals.

Schofield also voices concern over redaction - where documents containing pieces of confidential information are published. Someone is obliged to manually black out the sensitive parts, such as a medical person's name, and photocopy the document.

The administrator will also have to attach a note next to the censored information explaining why the information has been withheld. Schofield says: 'This is an issue that is scaring most organisations; the administrative task is potentially huge and labour intensive.'

The UK law means anyone can ask any public body for information, whether it is in the form of handwritten notes in a CEO's diary, minutes from meetings, salary details, expenses, or documents from previous public inquiries. All public bodies are affected bar M15 and M16.

There is now a presumption of disclosure. If public bodies do not provide the information requested, they must have good reason. There are exemptions that can be used to refuse requests for information (see box) - but unless one of these is used, officials face a two-year custodial sentence.

During the run-up to the legislation, the ICO recommended that the public sector prepare for FOI by publishing as much information as possible to pre-empt queries, a tactic many public bodies have employed, including the Association of Chief Police Officers. The police body has also designed a national FOI guidance manual that it sent out to all its members, and has created a national referral scheme for complex queries, reveals Hampshire Police Force deputy chief constable Ian Readhead.

The Department of Health kicked off its internal comms campaign around FOI in November 2002. The initiative used a viral campaign and worked with trade bodies such as the British Dental Association to educate the 600 NHS trusts about the pending act.

It also advertised in healthcare titles, sent direct mail shots to health authority chief executives and managed seminars and conferences, says Helena Reeves, comms director at campaign co-ordinator South East London Strategic Health Authority.

The BBC, meanwhile, has created a nine-strong team to process FOI requests before sending them to the relevant department.

Systems in place

Against the background of warnings from local authority trade body LG Communications that FOI will put significant strain on local government comms resources, authorities such as Westminster City Council have put systems in place to help their officers and members deal with queries.

It has trained 50 of its staff in how to deal with the act and appointed them as specialists within their departments. The comms department circulated written briefings on the act and left a 'talking postbox' in council corridors for a week in an effort to generate interest.

Head of comms Alex Aiken says: 'We recorded the voice of a PRO saying "let me out" and let it play from a council-made postbox, something that people would talk about in the lift.'

Despite the concerns about meeting new obligations of disclosure under the act, there is a consensus that the principle of freedom of information will benefit the public sector, the media and the general public alike.

Ford says: 'The more information that is in the public domain, the more the public will understand how taxes are spent. Councillors and politicians will be held to greater account, which should lead to better governance, and politicians will be less likely to make decisions in haste.'

Aside from unearthing some dirty secrets, if it helps restore trust in our political system, the Freedom of Information Act will be no bad thing.

INFORMATION EXEMPT FROM FOI

- Court records

- Commercial confidentiality where it is in the public interest for data to remain undisclosed, such as in tenders for local council contracts

- Ongoing public inquiries

- Information that would prejudice national security or the detection of crime, such as police operational instructions

- Personal information such as medical records - this would breach the Data Protection Act 1998

- The formulation of government policy. Whitehall departments do not have to disclose policy discussions

- The Queen's communications and information on the Honours List

- Information that can be accessed by the applicant via other means.

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