Delays & lawyers plague FOI
(CNS): While some public authorities have embraced the freedom of information law and are proactively publishing more and more information, others seem to be doing everything they can to prevent information from coming, says the information commissioner. Ahead of this year’s Right to Know Week, when her office promotes the right of the people to access information Jennifer Dilbert said the use of delaying tactics, time wasting and lawyers were becoming all too common with some government entities. Once again, the information boss pointed out that it is not access to information that costs the public purse but efforts to try and thwart that access.
She pointed out that the law helps government save money because when civil servants know everything they do could be under transparent public scrutiny they may think twice about what they spend. Moreover, she pointed out, it is free to publish information on websites or release documents to applicant. The costs come when public sector workers spend time trying to find ways to block applicants and when lawyers become involved.
“Of course it is the right of every public authority to engage lawyers but we believe the information managers need to engage more with the applicants as often requests can be narrowed and time wasting cut down if they communicate,” Dilbert told CNS. “In some cases, when getting down to the finer points of a request, information managers may feel they need a lawyer but in most cases the managers are trained and they should be able to handle the majority of requests, especially if they discuss the issue with the customer and use a more common sense approach,” she added.
Dilbert also noted that slow progress was being made on the review of the law which formed part of the legislation passed in 2009. However, she said, since the review committee began looking at the changes needed to make the law function better, other issues have now emerged regarding the law and her office’s dwindling resources and she said it did need to be reviewed further.
Since the law came into effect in January 2009 up until June 2012, Dilbert and her team have handled 95 appeals where applicants have been denied information. Seventy-nine of those were resolved, including twenty cases which went to hearings before the commissioner.
During this year’s Right to Know Week Christina Smith, the ICO’s office manager, said the small team were doing as much as they could with limited resources to promote the theme of “It's yours, just ask”, which makes it clear that as the government represents the people, the people have the right of access to what it does.
Over the coming weeks the team from the ICO will be out and about promoting this and encouraging people to use the law. The week opens with a church service on 23 September and culminates in an appearance at Market at the Grounds on Saturday. Right To Know Day will be celebrated on 28 September.
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