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FOI should still apply when services are outsourced: Information Commissioner

The right to know about public services should be extended so that it is independent of the service provider, the Information Commissioner has said in response to a wave of outsourcings.

“When a public service departs from a public body under an outsourcing contract, I do not believe that the requirements of FOI [freedom of information] should melt away as the contractor takes over,” Elizabeth Denham told attendees at an event in London to mark 250 years of freedom of information.

The Information Commissioner said this was not just about contracts and the public pound, “even though that is a useful way of seeing which services should fall under the requirements of FOI”.

Health services, justice agencies, educational establishments all provided public services and their legal structure, which was irrelevant to the public, should not exempt them from the need for transparency, she insisted.

The Information Commissioner continued: “Whether public, private or third sector organisations are delivering a service, the public’s right to know should stand unchallenged. When we pull back the curtain using our rights to access we should see the whole picture – not just the edited highlights.”

The Information Commissioner said this was “not just rhetoric” and that she was taking practical action. This is to include the placing of a report before Parliament next year on the subject of outsourcing and transparency.

“I will place the ball – and my evidence – squarely in Parliament’s court,” the Commissioner said. 

Denham said her aim in the next five years as Information Commissioner was to enhance data confidence in the UK and argued that the transparency brought about by freedom of information was an important part of that mission.

In her short talk she also noted the challenges and opportunities of the digital era.

“Digital is both a blessing and a curse for FOI,” she said. “New technology gives people more opportunities to access public information, clearer channels to request records and more ways to manipulate data for scholars and the public. Digital brings new voices to the FOI table. But this richness of channel, of data and of audience is also a burden.

“In the era of digital we create ever increasing quantities of facts, figures and opinions. You could argue that we are drowning in information. But these masses of potential answers can become ever less permanent in the absence of a duty to document.”

The Information Commissioner said a positive, legal obligation to document actions and decisions was her answer to the challenge of decisions taken by text, by instant message or by email.

“If public authorities are placed under an effective duty to document regime then we are telling them to write down their decisions, to note their reasons and most importantly to write things down well,” she said. (emphasis in original speech)

Denham added that freedom of Information was only valuable if the information was created in the first place. “And if it is properly retained. There can be no gaps and no missing pieces if the institutional memories we create are to be tangible.”