Information Act has become a hindrance

No-one can doubt the impact and reach that the Freedom of Information Act has had since its introduction. PRWeek itself has run a series of stories in recent weeks.

There is no doubt that a genuine attempt at increasing transparency and access to government lay behind the introduction of the Act. However, questions over its use and interpretation are growing louder and ever more frequent.

This is not about having something to hide. As a taxpayer, I demand value for money and the opportunity to know how my money is being spent. Yet the feeling that the Act is now tarnishing the genuine efforts of the public sector to improve lives and opportunities is inescapable.

Well-documented are the routine FOIs on the consumption of bottled water and biscuits. My own personal favourite remains the request to one of our members who, sharing her name with the US songstress Tracy Chapman, was asked whether she 'drove a fast car'.

It is not just the Act being used as a research tool for understaffed media. FOI does not come cheap.

The average request takes 10 hours to process and costs £25 an hour in admin - far greater than the stipulated financial limits. It also diverts huge amounts of time and resource away from day jobs. One authority recently estimated the cost of processing all of the FOI requests submitted by the TayPayers' Alliance for one of its reports at around £110,000. The irony in this case is not lost. But, as we all know, democracy does not come cheap.

The Act, of course, has a particular challenge for public sector comms professionals. How to reconcile conforming to what is after all the law, knowing full well that the results will, in all likelihood, be taken out of context and used in a less than flattering manner?

Key to this is getting better at explaining what we do and how we are making a difference to people's lives; for example, the elderly and vulnerable.

We also need to get better at explaining the role of comms in this service delivery. For example, that PR spend is actually about running campaigns to attract more foster carers, and reduce teenage pregnancies or drink-driving. Two-way and improved dialogue is therefore crucial if the well-intentioned FOI is not to harm the work and image of the public sector.

Giles Roca is interim head of media and marketing at Essex County Council.

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