Closing doors on open data?

When the Cabinet Office released its white paper on open data last month I asked this question:

So, can I FOI Service Birmingham now?

This was because, while the Open Data white paper can be viewed as a continuation of policies which develop our right to open data, we are also going through a period where the organisations which provide public services are being dispersed, often out of the public sector itself.

Door and Knocker II Another of Barcelona's ubiquitous fancy doors, though this was more interesting than ornate. Image Copyright © 2007 Jeremiah Blatz

Whether it is privately owned health providers or social enterprises delivering local authority contracts, more and more of the organisations which hold and create the data produced in the course of public services are exempt from Freedom of Information legislation.

My question about Service Birmingham being FOI-able is because it is a private company established by Birmingham City Council and Capita to run the city’s IT infrastructure and services. To the best of my knowledge it has always resisted Freedom of Information requests, claiming exemption on the basis of it being a private enterprise.

Off the top of my head, in Birmingham we also have the following

  • Amey - A trans national company, whose parent Ferrovial are based in Spain, which has just embarked on a 25 year Private Finance Initiative contract to run the city’s highways network.
  • Where I live in Balsall Heath is one of three localism pilots in the city where community organisations and housing associations are going to control Community Budgets. My understanding is that Balsall Heath Forum is exempt under the Freedom of Information Act.

And there are bound to be more in Brum that I’ve forgotten or not heard of.

It’s worth stating at this point that not all of these organisations are antipathetic towards open data. Amey have supplied at least one response to an FOI request based on their Birmingham contract and I know from work I’ve done with the new Library of Birmingham that they are interested in the possibilities it offers them. Whether any organisation would willingly respond to some of the more challenging and confrontational FOI requests that are made is questionable though.

So, when the white paper came out last week I was keen to see what it had to say about this issue. All I could find was this, tucked away neatly in the appendix:

The scope of the FOIA is an issue that has been raised in evidence to the Justice Select Committee during post-legislative scrutiny of the Act. The Government will consider any recommendations of the Committee before bringing forward any proposals for future policy in relation to the FOIA. With regard to transparency outside the FOIA, the Open Public Services White Paper of July 2011 highlighted the need to strike the right balance between greater service provision in collaboration with private and civil society organisations and continuous transparency. The Government is mindful that transparency should be proportionate, bearing in mind potential burdens on provider organisations (especially small businesses and charitable organisations). In taking forward transparency and open government, we will, by the end of this year, set out how best we can achieve greater transparency by providers.

So, it’s not in their scope, they will take on the recommendations of the committee, but It’s Complicated.

It looks as though open data is brushing up against other interests here. The government has an ideological commitment to what it refers to as the decentralisation of service provision. Above it is implicitly saying this will trump open data.

Another way of putting this is that for our government it’s more important to move services away from being provided by the public sector than it is to ensure the transparency and scrutiny of those services.

I’d argue that now is the very time when transparency and scrutiny are most important.

So, at this weekend’s Local Gov Camp I’m going to facilitate a session where we talk about how we scrutinise these new decentralised services and the role that open data can play in doing that. I’d like it to include a mapping exercise from those present of where services are being spun out in their authorities and what the responses to any FOI requests have been.

If you have any examples you’d like to see included in this then please add them in the comments.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=665398972 Kate Goodall

    I have no problem at all with transparency. I do tend to groan though when I see a FoI request in my bulging inbox – I really don’t mind telling people stuff without all the formality, unless there are legal reasons why I can’t. I may well be a very polite heckler at this session Simon ;-) And it’ll be good to see you too of course :-)

    Kate

  • Chris Seymour-Smith

    I agree totally with the need for transparency and scrutiny to win over decentralisation. The argument in the quote suggests that FOI would add a burden to providers oif small businesses or charities. It’s very iunlikely that it is a small busines, and charity registered organisations aren’t charities such as RSPCA, so it’s a non-argument. Bottom line: if a provider accepts the work, they should accept an FOI responsibility.

  • http://siwhitehouse.co.uk siwhitehouse

    Hi Kate
    Yes, FOI has lead to a certain formalisation of a process that might have been a simple phone call. But it also gives people a right to information which hasn’t always been forthcoming by officers less amenable than yourself.

    It’ll be a discussion/workshop type affair so heckling is positively encouraged and it will be lovely to see you too.

  • http://siwhitehouse.co.uk siwhitehouse

    Thanks Chris
    I agree that it is very unlikely to be a very small business. The definition of the size of a small-to-medium sized enterprize is pretty large though. SB is an SME, for eg, I believe.That argument aside I think that the main issue here is that it is far more important to the Tory party that they dessicate the public sector than that they retain open data responsibilities in those organisations that take on providing public services. It’ll come back and bite us, but it isn’t a consideration at the moment.

    And it’s an issue where open data advocates need to start finding allies elsewhere. Because we’re a pretty fringe interest group still and the UK Open Government Data group allowed for we don’t have a lot of political clout. 

    I think this needs to be framed as a transparency and scrutiny issue and argued from that point of view.

  • http://twitter.com/dazwright Daz Wright

    I think the quote implies that Government will find it difficult to find companies to take on contracts if they are to be subject to transparency. I find this hard to believe, if companies want public sector contracts they already have to demonstrate they are compliant in a number of areas much more onerous than FOI. The reality is, if they want public money then they need to be accountable to the public.

    I too have often been vexed by an FOI when I’ve been more than happy to just give the answer and have taken this up with people before. The reality seems to be that the FOI process is just easier than trying to figure out who to ask whilst always having a suspicion that you will be ignored. 

    I think we need to invest more in making our systems transparent and easy to navigate rather than thinking it is the public that are doing it wrong.