James Governor's Monkchips

My Submission to call for evidence by Commission on Freedom of Information

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Given the subject is Freedom of Information it seems appropriate I publish my response to the current government consultation on FOI here. I also strongly recommend you take part. FOI is an essential weave in the democratic fabric. 38 Degrees has made it really easy to respond here.


Why do you think Freedom of Information should be protected?

FOI leads to better governance and better outcomes for citizens and businesses.

How do you think government transparency could be improved?

FOI should cover all companies providing government services

Question 1: What protection should there be for information relating to the internal deliberations of public bodies? For how long after a decision does such information remain sensitive? Should different protections apply to different kinds of information that are currently protected by sections 35 and 36? (Note: ‘Sections 35 and 36’ of the Act cover policy formulation, communications between ministers, and information that would affect the free and frank giving of advice or expression of views.)

as the software industry has shown open source is a more effective management and production mechanism. we make better management and technical decisions in the open.

Question 2: What protection should there be for information which relates to the process of collective Cabinet discussion and agreement? Is this information entitled to the same or greater protection than that afforded to other internal deliberative information? For how long should such material be protected?

cabinet discussions are part of government decision making and as such should be covered by FOI

Question 3: What protection should there be for information which involves candid assessment of risks? For how long does such information remain sensitive?

being open allows the public to buy in and feel more ownership of major infrastructure projects, which can only be a good thing

Question 4: Should the executive have a veto (subject to judicial review) over the release of information? If so, how should this operate and what safeguards are required? If not, what implications does this have for the rest of the Act, and how could government protect sensitive information from disclosure instead?

the NHS example is salutary. if government is serious about reform it needs to be serious about transparency, giving decisions affect our health and lives

Question 5: What is the appropriate enforcement and appeal system for freedom of information requests?

of course decisions to be defensible.

Question 6: Is the burden imposed on public authorities under the Act justified by the public interest in the public’s right to know? Or are controls needed to reduce the burden of FoI on public authorities? If controls are justified, should these be targeted at the kinds of requests which impose a disproportionate burden on public authorities? Which kinds of requests do impose a disproportionate burden?

FOI should not only be a tool for people with money. it should be free at the point of use, even if it does involve overheads


  1. Do you also believe in personal privacy? These views would seem to be direct contradiction to that (in addition to being astonishingly naive as concerns human behavior).

    1. hey staticvars you clearly strongly believe in privacy, which is good. no real name etc. here is the thing. i realise some would see the positions as extreme or naive- i prefer “idealistic”. given that the plan is to try and shut FOI down we need some idealism in defending it. open source, with open mailing lists and minutes of every discussion, has provided a tremendously powerful model to adopt. In the broader culture, I don’t for example think Edward Snowden’s disclosures have harmed us. You are not very specific in your complaints about my views. The nature of personal privacy is clearly undergoing rapid change, and governments would generally have us believe that “if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to hide”. If governments believe that they should change their behaviours accordingly. FOI is written into the Norwegian constitution since 1814 which indicates it is not a question of “human nature”. but thanks for the feedback!

  2. How would you respond to the following scenario?

    An agency responsible for air quality in a region has a 2 million dollar budget to fulfill their mission, which is to test, monitor, and investigate possible violators.
    Due to a large entity being the source of several alleged violations it is taking the entire budget to pursue these investigations.
    To prevent these investigations (and punitive actions) from occurring the offending industry and its proxy citizens flood the agency with FOI requests to the degree that it would take $2 million to fulfill them, leaving the agency nothing left in the budget for the investigations themselves.

    What path do you propose the agency should take when clearly there is an imbalance on the scale with mission + FOI one side and budget on the other.
    Proposing an increase to the budget is not an option and would be considered to be avoiding the question.

    P.S. Sorry that I got here a couple of months late.

    1. hey @huckleseed this is a useful thought experiment by edge case. thanks. in your view, what’s the average cost to satisfy an information request?

  3. Hi @jgovernor, now that is an example of a question that is easy to ask and yet far more difficult to answer than it may first seem. There are several reasons for this but I think that it may be broken down into the following categories that I will briefly elaborate upon so that an idea of the complexity of the question may be understood. But I won’t attempt to place an average cost because it would take dozens of examples and then the actual numerical distribution of each example in the real world would be unknown to me. Many cannot be isolated in terms of an individual request as they are types of ongoing costs. And of course in some categories the cost per request actually goes down as you increase the number of them until the systems capacity is exceeded at least. In addition some cost areas will share the burden but that really can only be factored when you are looking at individual examples.

    Personnel costs – Covers not just the hourly pay of the person fulfilling the request, but anyone involved in its care taking and delivery. That number could be low, but in the case of dedicated systems for FOI it would include everyone from the technician who installs and maintains the workstation PC, to the warehouse storage caretaker who keeps the rats from chewing through cardboard boxes containing handwritten records.

    Storage costs – This will vary widely given that it may consist of the warehouse example from above, to a thumb drive, to petabytes and more of data residing in a cloud solution or a cold repository offsite.

    Access costs – As above this will vary widely. Is the information readily available from a local storage device and software (we cant forget the software costs either) or will someone need to spend hours looking through unsorted dusty cardboard boxes for files handwritten in nearly illegible script? Will the cold storage repository need to be contacted to deliver backup tapes to the IT department who then will need to build a system for hosting and access? And the answer to those simple questions may take research themselves as current personnel may not know what the disposition of data handled by employees and projects gone away for years may be.

    Current format of the data in question – This was mentioned above but can be expanded upon even if in a digital format. So lets say you have a database system for your queries and need to load the archive that contains what you need. That archive may be in a format that was popular 20 years ago, but is not in current use in the industry and the company that created it went out of business 10 years ago. Where do you find a conversion tool or drivers or even the original application to simply read the data, much less export it for the FOI request?

    Current state of storage – Once again I already mentioned some examples above. From cardboard boxes, to a local drive, to old backup tapes stored in a remote facility that must be requested and delivered; it varies widely.

    Cost of data conversion – The information must be converted from its current format to one that will deliver the requested data. This may involve more than saving some text as a word document or an Excel file into SQL. As an example think about something like APR for interest charged. It may not exist as such in the current format and there may be no easy key to the data to calculate it. Instead, the person trying to generate an accurate APR for a specific loan may be required to scour through multiple tables or sources to look for fees, payments, and other charges to make that determination while also performing a cross check that shows that the formula they create actually reflects the real transaction from that time. Did those payments column add the fee and so leave the fee column out or add it in?

    Data validation – See the above example. But also consider whether the data returned is the most current for a data set. Also, is it valid? Was this actually a sample that was only used for testing purposes and was the subject of random transactions not actually performed? Was this the correct source to answer this FOI in the first place?

    Scope of the FOI request – Is this a simple request such as the owner of a property on a specific day of a specific year? Or does it consist of multiple parameters scattered across multiple systems and storage states? Will it return a few bytes of information or a massive amount that requires new local storage and delivery methods just to contain it?

    Required or existing aggregation of the data – As above, pulling from a single record within a local storage or aggregated from multiple records, tables, databases, systems, storage sites and vendors?

    I hope this proves to be somewhat useful. As you can see, even with two parties in complete agreement of its value and working together in cooperation, this can still be a monumental and expensive undertaking with the requisite question looming over all. Who exactly is going to pay for it?

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