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Simon Jones: We need a better way to provide information than the FOI system

Simon Jones
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The proposed private members bill widening the rights of journalists to inspect council accounts is a common-sense move.

Under existing rules a journalist would have to be local ratepayer to inspect council accounts in the month-long window that exists. Wendy Morton’s bill would ensure that all journalists have this right regardless of whether they live in the area or not. Few people could really argue with this.

Yet it raises broader questions around the public’s right to information and the ability of public bodies to respond.

In many councils now a significant proportion of council officer time is increasingly being spent providing information rather than doing the job.

Most local authorities will tell you that in the past ten years the number of Freedom of Information requests have trebled.

Do we really want our planning officers spending a huge amount of time digging out old information rather than processing planning applications on time?

And then of course there is the huge bureaucratic wheel which governs approval processes with anything potentially posing a ‘reputational risk’ requiring senior sign-off with countless people copied in. In reality that pretty much counts for every request as few FOI officers have the experience or desire to make informed judgments.

At a time when council resources are being stretched to the limit the requirement to respond to every request for information is taking vital resources away from frontline services.

Yet the answer to this conundrum is not to limit the public’s right to information – they are after all paying our wages – but to get better at the way routine information is updated digitally.

Local authorities spend too much time reinventing the wheel every time an information request comes in. Most of the information would have been provided before in some way or another but few councils are building online information libraries where the public can self-serve.

My old council, Wandsworth, took a major step in this direction when it launched an ‘Open Council’ section on its website in 2012 which included performance measures, perception data and financial information. It may not be perfect but the 10,000 hits in the first week reflected the appetite of armchair auditors.

Being open and transparent isn’t just about saving time and money on FOIs; it is about responding in a digital age to public’s appetite for information on what we do and why we do it.

From the public’s point of view, getting basic information out of councils can sometimes feel like getting blood out of stone, which feeds mistrust and cynicism. The more pro-active we are the more confidence it will generate.

Simon Jones, national chair, LGcomms

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