Government shelves plan for ‘cost of FOI’ exercise as part of ongoing review of the Freedom of Information Act

The government has scrapped plans to carry out a controversial ‘true cost of FOI’ exercise as part of plans for reform of the Freedom of Information Act.

The cost survey was intended to be a key part of the review but has been shelved due to difficulties in nailing down a way to calculate how much information access laws cost.

Feasibility work had begun in 2018 and continued into 2019, when it was delayed by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has now said plans for it to form part of the review of the FOI Act had “not been pursued”.

They said: “Estimating the exchequer cost of FOI is something that has proven difficult across all jurisdictions that have attempted it.

“It is not a project that can be undertaken at haste if it is to produce robust and meaningful results.”

The department said the review of the FOI Act had already required public bodies to devote considerable resources to consultations and surveys.

And they said adding a “true cost” project would, given the time sensitivity of the review, be “impractical in the circumstances”.

A slideshow from an inter-departmental working group on FOI also explain how a survey had found low levels of satisfaction with how the information access law works.

Results showed that just 25% of requesters felt it was fit for purpose, while only 40% of public servants agreed.

A presentation said this “suggests an appetite for a fundamental change to the approach rather than just tweaks and fixes”.

The public sector also complained about workload and its impact on other tasks, broad and unfocused requests, and “repeat and abusive requesting patterns”.

For people requesting information, key problems identified included inconsistency, bureaucracy, a “frustrating” process, and being forced to use FOI for queries when it shouldn’t have been necessary.

An agenda for a meeting last September also said there was “no likelihood of a reintroduction of [up-front] application fees”, which has been a major concern for people who make requests.

Questions were also asked over whether there should be greater access to records from organisations that receive very significant state funding.

The agenda asked if there “should be a clearer system to ensure that records relating to services paid for by the state are accessible one way or the other”.

A slideshow from June also showed public servants raising concerns over how FOI worked with 51% saying it gets in the way of doing their job.

Only 41% felt it promoted public understanding of the work of public bodies, while nearly half said information was sometimes used in a way that was “misleading or unfair”.

Asked about the records, a spokesman for the Department of Public Expenditure said it was important to note that the meeting agendas and presentations should not be taken as “conclusive” on how the review of FOI law was progressing.

He said: “As reflected in the update document recently published by this Department, the final report and recommendations have not yet been finalised and will be subject to Government approval.”