A number of people have raised concerns as to how open an organisation Ofcom is. It’s a public corporation, set up in many ways like the BBC, but it was setup with the knowledge that the UK Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) would take effect in January 2005. This has led it to define the accessibility of the information that it produces, as it generates it.
We’ve heard many people have applied for information and have been turned down, with the frequently cited reasons being; Not in the public interest (how broad a brush would you like sir); or Commercially sensitive (also pretty broad). Others, who have had their request granted, are nearly always pointed to Ofcom’s extensive Web site, which isn’t always the known as the quickest to locate what you want.
We’ve heard that many applications take the statutory maximum number of days (20) to respond with a reply – even when it’s a refusal. This causes us some confusion – does it really take that long for Ofcom to deduce that it is going to be refused, especially as all information is graded on creation? Ofcom’s response is that if it comes back as a refusal, they will pass it through “internal procedures” to re-examine if they can release it.
Ofcomwatch have been keeping an eye on this for some time. We spoke to Luke Gibbs from Ofcomwatch about their FOIA findings, “This is something we’ve been looking at over the last year. It appears to us that Ofcom is following the letter of the FIOA, rather than the spirit. We’ll be doing further research into this later in the year.”
Russ Taylor, Ofcomwatch co-founder reveals their finding …
Ofcom was kind enough to provide OfcomWatch with some brief midyear statistics on how it is progressing with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), implemented in the U.K. on January 1, 2005. For previous Ofcomwatch posts on this issue, check Ofcomwatch’s Brief Guide to The Freedom of Information Act and its continuation.
* Ofcom is averaging about 130 FOIA requests per month ~ about 800 so far.
* About 70% of FOIA requests are granted. Common reasons for denying a FOIA request: (i) the data is commercially confidential and (ii) the request is overly-broad and could not be completed within the 18 hour / 450 GBP limit.
* 98.5% of FOIA requests are processed within the statutory time limit. Interesting point: Grants are reportedly swifter than denials, because Ofcom internally review proposed denials to determine whether they can be partially granted.
* Ofcom do not categorise FOIA requests because that would lead to prioritisation, which would be ‘wrong and unfair’.
* Overall, Ofcom commented that the FOIA — in ‘philosophical terms’ — is ‘both welcome and in line with our view of the public’s right to expect transparency and accessibility from public bodies’. However, Ofcom noted that FOIA is something of an operational burden because of the volume of requests received.
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So, that’s Ofcom’s take (and progress) on FOIA so far. FOIA is of course a new area of U.K. law and we expect all public bodies–not just Ofcom–to struggle with implementation. OfcomWatch will take a closer look at FOIA in January 2006, as the first-year of the FOIA’s applicability to Ofcom draws to a close.
But, overall (and interim) statistics only tell part of the story:
* We’ve heard some interesting stories about FOIA from some of you, and we’ve filed less than a handful ourselves. Keep sharing your FOIA stories (mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org).
* I suppose we’ll also receive legal clarifications on just how powerful a tool FOIA is as some denials (whether by Ofcom or by others) are tested on appeal.
* Finally, FOIA is only one element of ‘better regulation’ that is being implemented across the U.K. Better regulation means that FOIA requests should be minimised because public bodies otherwise maintain useful websites and publication schemes, always with an eye toward satisfying their ultimate boss: the citizen-consumer. So, we always want your comments on how Ofcom can function better in this regard.