A trend long-established in the United States is coming to Britain — Freedom of Information consultancies that conduct FOI-based research on behalf of corporate clients.
Public procurement people don’t like having their processes inspected by companies looking for an advantage in the tendering process, so using intermediaries allows companies to disguise that they are doing this.
Besides being some great free publicity for John Ashton’s company, Freedom Of Information Ltd., he FT’s story about this suggests “businesses may be making greater use of the act, which came into effect on January 1, than had been realised.”
A survey conducted earlier this year by public sector technology company APR Smartlogik suggested that in the first three months of 2005, 50 per cent of FOI requests to central government and 25 per cent of requests to local authorities came from businesses.
Of course, none of this sould matter. FOI a is supposed to be requester-neutral: The purpose of the request is irrelevant under the law, so companies shouln’t have to do this. But clearly, there is a backlash against requesters among some civil servants who see commercial requests as an “abuse” of the system. That makes this a valuable service.
Even though the government has made clear that business is expected to be the heaviest single user of the act, and the legislation itself does not give public bodies the right to ask why requesters want information, many authorities are uncomfortable with demands to find data for corporate use.
The Department for Constitutional Affairs confirmed that authorities should not object to companies using the act to uncover potentially useful information. It said: “We don’t have the right to ask [who is making the request] and it’s really none of our business to what use people want to put the information.”
However, the department has urged authorities to publish the information they disclose on their websites. By making any data freely available, they can hamper any individual company’s attempt to get an advantage over its rivals.
Matthew Harris, an intellectual property specialist at Norton Rose, the law firm, said: “If an authority provides this information and puts it on the web, then to a certain degree you can undermine the commercial value of the information.”
FoI has spawned an entire research industry in the US and Mr Harris said it was inevitable that UK companies would follow. “It was only a matter of time before it started to happen in the UK,” he said. “I still think that industry is relatively unaware of the opportunities. Greater use could be made of the legislation.”
Perhaps journalists should use private e-mail addresses as well. Evidence from Canada suggests that media management (ie, spin) techniques applied to potentially-sensitive FOI requests slows down requests coming on news organisation’s headed paper.