What does the British Government know?

By Mark O’Neill

In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act has been around since the 1960’s but in Great Britain it has only been in force since 2000. Britain is quite a secretive country by nature with its Official Secrets Act and I think Brits are still finding it a novel concept to be able to just ask for something, instead of being quoted the rule book.

An interesting website called “What Do They Know?” has been set up to co-ordinate FOI requests in the UK. The idea is that if you want to make a FOI request – and you don’t mind that request being public – then you can make it through this website. The webmaster will make sure that your request reaches the proper government department and the request will also be posted to the site with a status on it such as “pending”, “successful”, “unsuccessful”, whatever.

Then when the information comes from the department in question, the response is also posted to the site, next to the original request. The idea is that if someone else is also looking for the same information, they can check the site. They can also get in touch with the requester and offer to team up on projects, lawsuits and much more.

It goes without saying that if you want to make private requests or if you don’t want your name publicised then this site is not suitable. But if you don’t mind your request being made public or if you’re looking for people who may share your cause then you can do it through “What Do They Know”. Not only will your request get to the right government bureaucrat but someone scanning the site may see your request and think “wow, they’re requesting the same stuff as me, let’s team up!”.

Is there an equivalent site to this in the United States for US Freedom of Information requests? It sounds like a really great idea to me.

3 Responses to What does the British Government know?

  1. What a wonderful way to completely misunderstand things. We haven't had a Freedom of Information act in the UK until recently not because we are a closet, secretive nation cowed by the Official Secrets Act, but rather because there has not been the need to waste the time in enshrining such an obvious thing in law and creating an additional bureaucracy.

    Frankly the only reasons I can see for us having such a ridiculous piece of legislation now are that:

    a) the current government greatly enjoys creating new legislation so it can then point to it and say 'look what we have done', regardless of whether it is needed or worthwhile;

    b) the vast majority of people in this country are far more likely to believe the ill-informed mitherings of the press than to actually engage with government officials and consequently assume that the government is busy doing things in secret; and

    c) everyone else has one so we must too.


    Signed, A Slightly Miffed Civil Servant

  2. Well Guy, you're talking to an ex-British civil servant from Scotland and handing over information to the public and journalists is not an "obvious thing". To my mind, it required a law because my ex-colleagues were extremely reluctant to hand over anything if the public asked for it. Excuses were always thought up, stalling tactics always devised.

    I left the Scottish Government before the FOI Act came into force so I don't know if the FOI Act has improved anything but I'm sure it hasn't made anything worse.

  3. Perhaps just the Department I've been working in for the past 7+ years, then. Granted I've come across my share of shirkers who prefer to avoid answering queries of any kind, but that is largely down to poor management and the FOI Act hasn't changed that.

    Of all the queries I've had to deal with pitched as FOI requests, none of them have actually met the criteria to be handled as FOI requests and rather have fallen well within the bounds of existing correspondence, with the relevant procedures duly applied.

    Of course what the FOI act does do is potentially criminalise an individual for making an honest mistake if the information provided turns out to be incorrect. And it requires timescales to be met regardless of whether they are realistic (I recall a trainee gleefully explaining that if a FOI request was handed in to the coastguard at the northern end of the Shetland Islands, the 20 day clock starts ticking at that time, never mind how long it might take to be delivered to the relevant official in the Department in Westminster).

    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for people understanding that they have the right and indeed the obligation to question the things that go on in government, ostensibly on their behalf. But the FOI act, as with just about any legislation, is a blunt tool that should only be looked to as a last resort. From my experience all it manages to do is make my job harder and I've yet to see an FOI request that actually results in information being released that a normal letter wouldn't have.

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