Administering the Freedom of Information Act the way it is currently structured costs the public sector a huge amount of money and wastes an awful lot of many people's time. By mandating the publication of certain types of information instead of having a response-based system, it would save the country millions of pounds per annum, reduce the regulatory burden and increase openness and transparency over the things that really are important and are in the public interest.
Don't get me wrong – I'm not against freedom of information and I do believe the Freedom of Information Act is there for good reasons. Without it we wouldn't have known about MPs expenses. However, the Act needs to be looked at for two good reasons:
1. What it costs the public sector.
2. Unintended consequences.
Let's start with the costs. In the NHS alone, there will be at least one, if not more, staff administering Freedom of Information and many more collecting responses in every NHS organisation – that's 1000s of staff in total country-wide. If you add central government, local government and quangos, that's 1000s more. We're talking tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of pounds nationally being spent answering questions from – mainly – lazy journalists and MPs' researchers.
As far as the unintended consequences go, just think about it. How many more senior public sector executives are now using their procurement departments to book flights, hotels, rail journeys, taxis, working lunches etc. rather than filling in an expense form so that when a Freedom of Information request comes in their record looks squeaky clean? And what about minutes of meetings, will they become briefer and blander to avoid the airing of contentious discussions to a potentially hostile press and public. The more FOI-savvy the public sector becomes, the more ways it will find to become less open and transparent.
The solution would be not to scrap the Act – it has achieved some good things – but to firstly state up front what must be placed in the public domain. That would include salaries of all senior staff and their expenses and unredacted minutes of all public meetings. Secondly, to levy a minimum charge for all requests under the Freedom of Information Act to deter time-wasters. Thirdly, to allow the public sector organisation to state in its response how much it cost the organisation to respond to the question and to require it to report in its Annual Report how much the Freedom of Information Act costs it to administer per annum.