Monday 19 May 2014

Freedom of Information, or bureaucratic red tape?

There has recently been debate about extending  the Freedom of Information Act to charities. MPs and others have suggested we should do so. This must be resisted at all costs. Why?

Firstly, we are independent of the State, not a part of it. FoI recognised that people have the right to know what public bodies do in their name and with their money. But charities are neither organs of the state, nor are they largely funded by the State - whatever some critics may claim. Latest figures suggest voluntary organisations get just over £16bn from individuals and £14bn from the state (of which over £11bn is in the form of service contracts, not grants).

Secondly, charities often act in the most sensitive of areas and with the most vulnerable groups in society. There can be no right for intrusive journalists prying into the work of charities working in sexual health or abortion, in mental health and disability for example. It could even be dangerous if people felt there may not be the strictest confidence in our operations. Of course FoI exclusions could be used, but the perception that might be created could be damaging.

Third, it would be difficult to disentangle charities' various funding streams. Would grant funding be "state money" and so subject to FoI? What about part-grant and donation funding on projects? Or where organisations have many projects with varying public bodies. You can imagine the legal wrangles. The masses of time-consuming correspondence. The court cases and Commissioner rulings gradually eroding the shores of our independence.

There is, however, a different approach. It must be accepted by voluntary organisations that, if you have a contract with the public sector, there ought to be transparency in how that money is used. The important question is then how to achieve transparency, and in a better way than a bureaucratic, process-driven FoI. Bureaucracy of the FoI type would be prohibitively expensive for charities with limited resources, and couldn't be a good use of donors' or the state's money.

Commissioners could perhaps stipulate in their contracts the information that ought to be disclosed. This could run alongside commissioning reforms that prohibit gagging clauses. Provided that the burden of bureaucracy doesn't outweigh the benefits from transparency, this is a reform whose time has come.

ACEVO is going to consult members on a Code of Practice on information disclosure in public contracts. We aim to exemplify good practice and openness. But we'll say no to the prying intrusion of the journalism that seeks to denigrate not inform. 

And the bottom line must, as always, be on the outcomes of what we do. We must not only be open, but out and loud about it as well!

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