Most of my time I spend dealing with open formats, open data or open source software.

The other day I was having a conversation with someone who works for a public body, funded by public money which prompted me to think about a more general culture of openness. They said that the organisation in question was ‘very open’ yet when I asked them how much of that public money had been spent on a particular project they were not happy to tell me - suggesting that if I really wanted to know I could find out though a freedom of information enquiry.

The Freedom of Information Act is a great tool for openness but that kind of misses the point. If openness is desirable (and the existence of the FOI tells us that government thinks that it is and I certainly believe that it is) then it needs to be baked in to the culture of the organisation and all employees should feel empowered (or even obliged) to respond to such questions.

As I see it there are five possible reasons why the person in question was not prepared to give me the information (which they admitted they knew). In ascending order of likeliness they are:

  1. The information I was requesting related to national security and its disclosure was prohibited by the official secrets act
  2. The information was personal data
  3. They were contractually inhibited from so doing
  4. They never give out information at all
  5. They were embarrassed about the information and never give out information that reflects badly on the organisation

To which my responses would be:

  1. Fine. A good reason. I don’t want to be killed in a terrorist attack any more than the next person, but I am pretty certain that the cost of a small computer system relating to social care is not in this category.
  2. In this case the data wasn’t personal, but that is an acceptable reason for not being open. Summary or anonymised data should be offered as an alternative.
  3. What would be the point of that? FOI requests cost much more to respond to than answering questions on the phone and it takes about a minute to make a request on WhatDoTheyKnow.
  4. This is a failing on the part of the organisation. If (as I believe) openness is invariably a force for good, then the more it is practised the better. Organisations need to be clear about the importance of being open and evangelise about it.
  5. While it is easy to sympathise with this, it is the worst reason of all. Positive change is far more likely to occur where people are required to publicly acknowledge weakness. An employee embarrassed every day by the performance of their organisation is surely a powerful lever for improvement – one who can skirt the issue is much less likely to be an active force for good (and costs the organisation money in FOI requests).

So if you run an organisation that is obliged to respond to FOI requests – please make sure your staff feel empowered (and indeed obliged) to respond to questions so you don’t ever even get an FOI request. And if they sometimes have to give answers they don’t like then so much the better – one way or another your organisation will benefit from them having had that experience.