Fed up with false cost claims

Yet another story about the ‘enormous’ cost of complying with the Freedom of Information Act.
I saw this one in the 11 November 2004 issue of the Birmingham Evening Mail. But there are many more spreading their own brand of misinformation.

£1m bill to reveal secrets
Nov 11 2004
By David Bell, Evening Mail

Council taxpayers are facing a £1 million bill to expose Birmingham’s municipal secrets to public scrutiny, it was revealed today.

The Freedom of Information Act, passed four years ago but only coming into effect in the New Year, has huge financial implications for the city, according to scrutiny chief Coun Mick Wilkes.

He expects the legislation to lead to hundreds of written and e-mailed requests for information from the city.

And what a tragedy that would be. First politicians complain about the public’s apathy, and then, when it looks like me might actually get active, they complain we’re not apathetic enough.

This article, like all the others, presents a good deal of misinformation that needs correcting. It is disingenuous to claim that the public will be foisted with a huge bill for daring to question the doings of government.

Most local councils (and other public authorities) already provide a great deal of information to the public and a good council would welcome the opportunity to be more transparent and accountable to its stakeholders. The bulk of requests will be handled no differently after FOI comes into effect and so there will be little extra cost. And where are these cost figures coming from? I have yet to see a properly cited source that I can check for confirmation. As far as I can tell these figures are plucked from the air.

If cost is the main concern, consider that FOI is the most cost-efficient way of ensuring good governance and stopping corruption which is why the World Bank and IMF require FOI laws in countries where they lend money. Think of how many millions would have been saved if we’d had more access to the policies behind the millennium dome, tube contracts, railways, defence contracts and government IT contracts?

Secrecy is expensive – not just because it breeds corruption. The American group Open the Government, found that for every $1 the federal government spent last year releasing old secrets, it spent $120 maintaining the secrets already on the books. Who knows how much money is being wasted in this country due to excessive secrecy? Could this be why politicians are trying to scare us off exercising our new rights?

The truth is that these scare stories cooked up by politicians and government employees reveal an underlying belief that the public had best keep its nose out of ‘their’ business. Such blatant disrespect for the public’s right to know has no place in a modern democracy and any politician subscribing to such views ought to be voted out of office.

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