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Tuesday, October 4, 2011
FOI Toolbox

Lessons in FOI from across the pond

By Joel Campbell

Editor’s note: Portions of this column appeared in a previous Salt Lake Tribune column by the author.

Every so often, the FOI Toolbox changes its focus from how journalists can obtain information to how SPJ, both through members and as an organization, can advocate better FOI policy at state and federal levels. A recent research visit to the United Kingdom gives perspective on how the U.K.’s relatively new FOI law suggests improvements in the U.S.

In many ways, Britons seem to really understand what it means to provide access to public information. The British Parliament enacted its first comprehensive FOIA in 2000 and gave the government five years to implement the law. (President Lyndon Johnson signed the U.S. FOIA in 1966.) By 2005, the first information requests started rolling into all levels of U.K. government. Here’s what we in the states can learn.

1. Push to have the U.S. FOIA cover Congress, which continues to exempt itself.

The U.K.’s law gives access to parliament, and recent history provides good reasons why national lawmakers ought to be subject to records requests. One of the U.K. FOIA’s first high-profile tests occurred when Heather Brooke, a U.S.-trained journalist and activist living in London, asked members of the House of Commons for detailed expense reports. This British version of Congress spent months dragging its heels as it blotted out names of individuals and attempted to protect other private information. In the end, an insider leaked the information to the Telegraph, one of the U.K.’s leading newspapers. Day after day the Telegraph published details of Members of Parliament (MPs) expenses for second homes, trips and other luxuries. Needless to say the public was outraged, and the disclosures led to the resignations.

2. Push for laws that codify the policy that providing information is part of the government’s obligation to its citizens.

For example, all U.K. information requests are free up to very generous limits. The limit for fee waivers is U.S. $964 for federal government requests and U.S. $720 for local government requests. While U.S. lawmakers might find such largesse inconceivable, this approach should help some states in particular rethink a philosophy that a requestor has to pay nearly every penny for the government to produce documents.

3. Push for laws that make it easier to make requests.

The U.K. system is also easier to use when compared to many U.S. states. For example, a simple request for a record in an email and even on Twitter is considered to start the clock ticking on a government response. Residents don’t need to cite chapter and verse of the law to obtain a record. A request is a request no matter the form.

4. Push for systems that help reduce response time for FOI requests.

Along with what appears to be an efficient and fair system to govern information access, the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office maintains a database of access requests and appeals. This provides statistics about how well the system is functioning and just who is making requests. It also helps government be more proactive as officials work to reduce backlogs. Admittedly, the U.K. is a smaller country and can more easily coordinate all requests from the local to national levels, but their tracking system and case load reduction are worth studying.

5. Advocate improvements in appeal processes.

U.S. policymakers can learn from the U.K.’s appeal system. The U.K. system has an independent tribunal and appeal system staffed by information access experts. It also doesn’t require an attorney to make an appeal. The Information Commissioner’s Office goes out of its way to help citizens negotiate for records, often avoiding an appeal altogether. In short, the government often becomes an advocate for citizens. While some states have strong appeal systems and mechanisms to help requesters, many could benefit from a more user-friendly appeals process that doesn’t give well-heeled government attorneys the upper hand when journalists and citizens challenge records closures.

Joel Campbell is a member of the SPJ FOI Committee and associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. His reporting does not necessarily reflect the views of BYU. He writes a weekly column on open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach him at foiguy@gmail.com.

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