In the past two years Harrow Council has witnessed a staggering 160 per cent increase in its number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. It is a trend that has been seen in local authorities across the UK. On average, councils spend an estimated £34m handling FOI requests every year, with each taking between 10 and 12 hours to answer.
They find themselves in a perfect storm of increasing media scrutiny over how they spend taxpayers’ money while their budgets are slashed by central government.
Harrow Council’s Hugh Peart believes he has found a solution to both ease the cost burden and appease the public’s appetite for transparency. It involves a radical approach to publication schemes.
While Clause 19 of the FOI Act requires all public authorities under its remit to have an approved publication scheme, the level of disclosure varies greatly. Some local authorities publish only the bare amount of information required, such as the council’s constitution, election results and councillors’ details.
Harrow operates at the opposite end of the spectrum. On its website you can find a breakdown of all salaries for senior managers, including Peart’s, detailed business and performance plans, and councillors’ attendance and expenses figures.
It is the kind of information that every authority has to divulge under an FOI request. But by publishing it on the website, it eliminates the cost involved in repeatedly responding to the same queries.
For Peart, this is only the beginning of what is possible under the publication scheme.
“The default model for most councils is, ’we won’t give anything away unless we have to’,” he says. “I want to turn the whole edifice on its head. I want us to move away from the defensive position of keeping everything to ourselves and say that everything’s public except for a few obvious areas. I’d like to push the publication scheme to the limit and see our web content grow so that there’s as much on there as possible.”
This will make uncomfortable reading for some in the council. As well as detailed financial figures Peart would like to publish email exchanges between staff – in fact, eventually he wants all information that would have to be released under an FOI request to be available online.
This would protect sensitive areas such as child protection and childcare – information that would not be released under an FOI request anyway – while all but eliminating the cost of dealing with these requests.
To those who believe the plan is too radical, Peart says there are already precedents. In recent years planning laws have been amended to such a degree that almost every step in the process is publicly available, either online or by attending committee meetings.
It is a long way from the cloak and dagger approach that blighted local authorities in previous generations.
“The whole planning process takes place in the public domain and they seem to manage fine,” claims Peart.
“A few years ago that would have been anathema.”
Departments he believes could be opened up to a similar level of transparency include environmental health, education, community development, leisure and the arts.
Peart also points to recent moves among councils to publish details of all spending of more than £500. The initiative has been led by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, although, as Peart points out, he technically has no legal powers to demand that councils do this.
“At first people said that it would be impossible to do – that this was going to be the end of the world,” adds Peart. “The reality now is that we’re doing it and it’s not a problem, yet you would have thought finances would have been the most secretive area for councils.”
While Peart will continue pushing for transparency at Harrow – and continue expanding its publication scheme – he believes the real impetus must come from central government.
“You can expand the publication scheme over time, but without a big bang you can only go so far,” he says. “Pickles clearly has enough clout to make things happen. As we saw with the finance initiative, people would soon jump into line. The finance initiative lends weight to what’s possible if you’re given a mandate. Two years ago councils would never have put their finances out there.”
Such a move would also strengthen the often strained relationship between councils and the communities they serve.
“Why can’t we have these conversations in the public domain?” says Peart. “We’re not talking about nuclear secrets here. If you’re able to find out what’s going on, you’re more likely to get involved. The way councils are structured at the moment doesn’t make that easy. If issues are shrouded in secrecy it puts people off taking that first step.”