Councils decide whether to go public
Wednesday January 26, 2005
The Guardian, Heather Brooke
Just what do councils plan to publish online to comply with the Freedom of Information Act?
Imagine being able to look up the latest inspection of your local restaurant, or the fire safety report of a nearby cinema or theatre. Would you like to know if the council tax you pay is substantially higher than your neighbours in similar properties?
If you lived in the US, all this information would be available online. America’s culture of openness was set in law with its Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, passed in 1966. Each state also has its own, often stronger, public access laws that citizens can draw on.
The UK has finally implemented its own FoI law. So will we see similar material available online here? The picture so far is patchy.
The London borough of Greenwich says it will issue food hygiene certificates to restaurants that will be searchable online. Its website www.greenwich.gov.uk already lists every catering outlet in the borough and the results of inspections since last July. Surrey council is publishing the names of unscrupulous traders. But few other councils are following their lead.
“We are not going to be publishing anything other than normal,” said Mizra Ahmed, legal officer for Birmingham city council.
Tim Turner, FoI officer for Wigan council, says his authority, like others, is waiting to see what kind of requests they get before deciding on what additional information they will put online. “We’re still at the stage of asking what the public will want rather than providing any specific information,” he says.
Innovations in openness appear more likely in bigger organisations. The Health and Safety Executive has an online database that names and shames those businesses violating regulations prosecutions (www.hse-databases.co.uk). Healthcare regulators such as the General Medical Council (GMC) and Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (www.rpsgb.org.uk) have searchable online registers.
The GMC (www.gmc-uk.org) also makes minutes from its disciplinary hearings available online. And the Food Standards Agency (www.food.gov.uk) publishes minutes from all its board meetings online.
But these are the exceptions; the rule is foot-dragging and a stubborn adherence to the secrecy status quo. It’s an opportunity lost, according to Stephen Coleman, professor of e-democracy at the Oxford Internet Institute.
“The existing e-government agenda and the freedom of information agenda go together naturally. Civil servants should be working with e-government to make more information that the public wants to see more easily available online.”
Instead, defensive and suspicious public authorities are unwilling to disclose new types of information. Even fewer are willing to listen to what the public wants or provide ways for the public to engage directly with decision-makers.
“Providing information is not just about making it available in principal. It’s got to be accessible, meaningful and, if online, there should be intuitive navigation in operation,” says Coleman.
So what could authorities be putting online? Detailed budgets, allowances and expenses for a start. Contracts for all publicly funded services such as rubbish collection and parking enforcement could also be easy for the public to find. How much of this information comes during the next year will be a good indication of how well our FoI law is working.