Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS Trust is publishing its disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act on an RSS feed. The Department for Education and Skills also has an RSS feed for its disclosure log.
This is a great idea that should be implemented more widely among the 100,000-odd public bodies subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
When the policy of “simultanous publication” of responses to FOIA requests was annouced by the Government in December, some journalists were worried that this would reduce the value of the FOIA to the news media because it would tip off the competition to successful requests reporters had made. There would be no scoops by FOIA. Bloggers, the Guardian blog suggested, would be the main beneficiaries of the policy.
It’s a tough argument for journalists to make, because as Lord Falconer said at the time, the aim of the law is to create Freedom of Information, not to create a tool for journalists. Indeed, using RSS to publicise new disclosures is very much in the spirit of openness that the Freedom of Information Act is intended to engender in the public sector.
Moreover, the risk of losing an exclusive is also an opportunity not to get beaten on a good story. In the United States, journalists often file FOIA requests for FOIA logs to see what requests are being made by the public (and the competition).
In the UK, monitoring FOI disclosures effectively means constantly trawling public authorities’s web sites to check if new material has been added to the disclosure log. For journalists, at least, timeliness is paramount in this process. RSS feeds can simplify that process tremendously and level the playing field among outlets interested in publicising new FOIA disclosures.
There are still a few problems with the simultanious disclosure policy. In most government departments, there seems to be a selectivity about which disclosures are put on the web. Updating the online disclosure log is time-consuming, and because it’s not required under the Act, is clearly not a very high priority. Hopefully that will change in the next few years, and hopefully more and more government web sites will use RSS to alert the public about what they are disclosing.