Until I submitted an application under the freedom of information act to the national audit office, I had thought that FOIA was worse than ineffectual.
I had filed dozens of requests and come to know which organisations treat the legislation as an infection to be fought. I suspect, for example, that the treasury's office of government commerce (OGC) reaches for the exemption clauses before reading what's requested.
The OGC oversees central government contracts, including information-technology projects. But I had not realised how many exemption clauses there were in FOIA until I received my first response from the OGC.
In the same mould, there is the department for constitutional affairs whose diligent contribution to the act for which it is responsible seems to be to list the exemption clauses that are available to departments that want to refuse applications for information on big, costly and risky IT projects.
In my experience, departmental heads see FOIA as a threat to the fog in which they like to work. They do not seem to want anyone outside to see evidence of when their work may begin nowhere and go nowhere.
Some secretive departments have even turned FOIA to their advantage: not replying to a journalist's inquiries and instead suggesting that a FOIA application be made. Perhaps they know that a FOIA request is likely to kick a journalist's questions into touch by a year or more. The information commissioner has still not dealt with an application I submitted to Downing Street in January 2005.
My view of FOIA’s limited usefulness changed when I filed a request to the national audit office (NAO), which is not a central government department but overseen by Parliament's public accounts committee. I asked for draft NAO reports on the UK's biggest IT investment, a £12.4 billion scheme at the national health service (NHS).
I received a prompt and friendly acknowledgment. I was informed within two weeks of when I would probably receive a reply, and although it did not arrive within the statutory 20 days, I was given a timely apology for the short delay, and an explanation.
Given my previous experience, I was amazed when the response answered my question. The draft reports I had requested were sent to me – within a month of my original application.
As far as I know, this was the first time that the NAO had released draft reports to the public, and the first time FOIA had yielded any real insight into the IT-related workings of government.
The draft reports showed that criticisms contained in the NAO’s draft reports were removed, under pressure from the department for health, before the final report was published.
When FOIA was fully enacted, Lord Falconer, constitutional affairs secretary, spoke of how it would change the culture of government from one of defensiveness and secrecy to openness and honesty. But you cannot easily change habits of many lifetimes.
NAO staff members take pride in their independ-ence from government. But the FOIA disclosures show how that independence, which is protected by statute, has been undermined.
Yet I have a new-found respect for the NAO for making the disclosures. For me, the NAO's FOIA unit is the standard other organisations should strive to meet.
Tony Collins is executive editor of Computer Weekly.
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NHS neutered NAO’s criticisms of IT scheme