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Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Cost of Transparency

Cllr Andrew Wallis has written a blog entry looking at Freedom of Information requests.

He discusses a research document "Town Hall Transparency" .

In general, both the original document and Cllr Wallis's comments are informative, balanced and well presented.

The report concludes:

" .... the survey showed that FOI was viewed as overwhelmingly positive not only in terms of impact on the public but also on the organisation in terms of improving record keeping and the provision of a framework for access decisions with some limited evidence of improvements in decision-making. "

So it seems that FOI has been a good thing.

However at what cost? This is where my views begin to diverge from the accepted wisdom and that presented by Cllr Wallis.

Although I may be wrong (and I would welcome clarification of this if I am) it looks like the cost of answering FOI requests is calculated in a very simplistic way.

The calculation looks at how many FOI requests are made and how many officers hours are spent in dealing with those requests. From this a mathematical calculation gives you the average cost of FOI requests. Cornwall Council calculate this at £150 and, using Cllr Wallis's figures this would mean that there has been an annual average cost to the Cost Cornish tax payers £180,000 over the last two financial years (with requests and therefore costs rising all the time.)

Now I said that this is a very simplistic way of measuring the cost. The problem with this calculatuion is that it doesn't take into account the fact that, surely, the council should have already been dealing with requests for information anyway. Cllr Wallis was kind enough to explain that if you sell a portion of chips the cost of that sale includes all of the food, wrapping, labour etc. That is certainly true, but the cost doesn't vary if I call my bag of chips a 'bag of chips' or 'a portion of chips'. Whatever I call the product it costs exactly the same to produce.

If I ask the council for information, but don't ask for it as a FOI request, does that mean it doesn't cost anything? Surely the true 'cost' of FOI requests should take into account why answering a FOI request would cost more than answering any other request for information. If there are legitimate reasons why a FOI requests costs more to answer then it would be good to know them.

Of course you could apply the normal standard of Lys Kernow spin and argue that actually FOI reduces the cost of supplying information to the public.

This is because there is a dedicated team that acts efficiently and productively in turning around requests from the public and so there are associated savings related to gains in efficiency.

Although, given the horrendous mess that the Council often makes in answering requests accurately, I think that savings gained through effiicency might be hard to argue - even by Messrs Robertson and Lavery.

I believe that this official extrapoltion of 'cost' of openess and transparency is an economically spurious way of discouraging FOI requests.

I recently made two FOI requests. The Council claims that all FOI requests should be answered within 20 days - neither of mine were.

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