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Government backtracks on key open data and FOI commitments

Derek du Preez | Nov. 6, 2013
The UK has withdrawn some of its key open data and freedom of information (FOI) commitments in its latest national plan, which aims to boost transparency, participation, and accountability in the public sector.

Currently FOI requests are enforced by the UK Information Commissioner, who is responsible for dealing with appeals that are made over unfulfilled information requests. This commitment would have further empowered people to make FOI requests.

It was also intended that a higher cost cap for datasets requested would be introduced. At present, if it costs a central government organisation more than £600, or other authorities £450, they can reject an FOI request on the grounds that it costs too much in staff time and materials.

The IRM report states: "The commitment to raise these upper limits was apparently to prevent cost from inhibiting the disclosure of datasets in response to FOI requests, particularly if the details were requested in a specific format."

It is thought that the government's 'hands off' approach may have conflicted with this, resulting in a retraction.

"These commitments may be out of sync with an overarching government trend to reduce regulatory burdens," the IRM report said.

"The UK government made it clearthat it intends to review the circumstances in which requests can be refused on cost grounds, which could lower the cap, making it more, rather than less, likely that information can be withheld in response to FOI requests."

Other commitments that are unlikely to be fulfilled include establishing a framework for public service providers to have common, consistent and transparent inventories outlining what datasets are held, and whether or not they are open, using standards set by central government. This is in addition to developing a clear methodology to support 'intelligent inventories' that are prioritised by value.

National Action Plan 2.0
Following the IRM's report assessing the government's commitment retractions, the Cabinet Office has released its second National Action Plan.

It states that the UK's first plan looked at the challenges of improving public services and more effectively managing public resources, whereas the latest iteration will demonstrate what the government is doing across all 'five grand challenges'. These are as follows:

  • Improving public services
  • Increasing public integrity
  • More effectively managing public resources
  • Creating safer communities
  • Increasing corporate accountability

The two commitments that received the most attention at last week's OGP Summit in London were the National Information Infrastructure plan, and the UK government's commitment to create a publicly accessible central registry of company beneficial ownership.

It is hoped that the registry will contain information about who ultimately owns and controls UK companies, which could help tackle corruption and tax evasion. If legislation is passed, companies are likely to face greater requirements around compliance for reporting financial information.

On release of the second Action Plan, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said: "We have consistently made clear our commitment for the UK to become "the most open and transparent government in the world.

 

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