12 April 2015

Less expensive than the Duke of York

Less expensive than the Duke of York but twice as useful?

Today's New York Times item on the UK Freedom of Information regime, drawing on the 2011 Constitution Unit note, comments
The requests come in to local councils with appalling regularity: “How many residents in Sutton own an ostrich?” “What procedures are in place for a zombie invasion of Cumbria?” “How many people have been banned from Birmingham Library because they smell?”
In Wigan, the council was asked what plans were in place to protect the town from a dragon attack, while Worthing Borough Council had to outline its preparations for an asteroid crash.
Government secrecy has long been a hallmark of Britain, where neither laws nor traditions made it easy to obtain the documents and records that are the underpinnings of any bureaucracy. But a decade ago, the doors were swung wide open to allow the sunshine of public scrutiny into agencies, bureaus and councils, and the result has been both gratifying and slightly alarming.
While Britain’s Freedom of Information law has established itself as a potent tool to scrutinize the work of public authorities and hold those in power accountable, it has also had some expensive consequences — and, in some cases, revealed the absurdity of public whim. The hundreds of thousands of requests that have been received at various levels of government in the last decade have not only been time-consuming for agencies and councils, they have also proved extremely costly.
Such, though, is the side effect of transparency, say the proponents of open government, who also argue that the benefits outweigh the burdens.
“What people often forget is just how much F.O.I. saves money, because it exposes wasteful and extravagant spending,” said Paul Gibbons, a freedom of information campaigner and blogger. “Just one example: a local council in Scotland was spending thousands every year sending a delegation to Japan for a flower festival. Once F.O.I. came into force, they quickly realized they couldn’t justify doing that.”
In the decade since its adoption, the Freedom of Information act has been exposing incompetence, inefficiency and even corruption across more than 100,000 public bodies. Financial reports, expenses records, meeting minutes and private email correspondence have all been dragged into the public domain.
According to the Ministry of Justice, more than 400,000 requests have been made under the act since its implementation, and central government bodies are now receiving almost 1,000 requests a week.
A slew of political scandals have come to light under the act. It was Ms. Brooke’s F.O.I. request that ultimately led to the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, resulting in the imprisonment of five Labour members of Parliament and two Conservative peers.
More recently, Jeremy Hunt, the current health secretary who formerly was culture secretary, was embroiled in controversy after F.O.I. requests revealed his close relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire during News Corp’s approximately $12 billion bid for the broadcaster BSkyB. And Eric Pickles, the minister for communities and local government, landed in hot water for spending about $110,000 on tea and biscuits in a single year.
The expense of freedom of information is impossible to calculate precisely. A 2010 survey of the local authorities by University College London, estimated that responding to F.O.I. requests cost councils about $46 million annually. On the national level, rough estimates can be made using research from Frontier Economics, which calculated an individual F.O.I. request takes an average of 7.5 hours and costs about $430 to process. Between October 2013 and September 2014, central government departments received 48,727 requests, which would put the approximate annual cost of freedom of information at over $20 million.
Still, as advocates point out, that represents about 0.0019 percent of the budget — and $20 million is less than what the British taxpayer has paid for the travel expenses of Prince Andrew, the Duke of York. Also, often it pays for itself, they say, in exposing corruption or unreasonable public spending.
It's also, dare one say it, a reminder of the accountability that we should expect in a liberal democratic state.