It's high time we extend Freedom of Information Act to outsourcers

UK Information Commissioner's speech renews issue of transparency

Comment "You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it," Tony Blair famously said.

He wasn't referring to the Iraq war – as some might think – but the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act.

Some 17 years ago the legislation came into force under Blair's government, a decision he bitterly regretted in his memoirs. The intention of the act was to encourage "transparency and accountability" across public sector bodies.

Yet in the intervening years more government organisations have outsourced their services to the private sector, which is exempt under the FoI laws. That poses a huge obstacle in holding bodies to account when it comes to how they spend taxpayers' cash.

This is something The Register has increasingly encountered in our attempts to shine a light on UK government IT spend – an area strewn with costly mistakes.

Take for example the Cabinet Office's shared services centres, intended to save £400m by shifting all departments back office systems into two places.

Those centres are run separately by IT provider Arvato and French outsourcer Sopra Steria, and were set up 2014. Since then they have saved departments £90m over two-and-a-half years but have cost £94m due to escalating costs and delays, said the National Audit Office.

We have repeatedly asked the Cabinet Office for information about these projects over the last three years, and have been rebuffed under grounds of commercial confidentiality (ironically the Cabinet Office is responsible for Blighty's Freedom of Information policy). A little more public scrutiny might have played a part in holding those responsible to account sooner.

With that in mind, it was heartening to hear the UK Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, revive the issue about tackling transparency around contracted-out public services on Friday.

At the International Conference of Information Commissioners, Denham and her follow commissioners resolved to tackle the "challenge of scrutinising public expenditure and the performance of services provided by outsourced contractors" and its "impact on important democratic values such as accountability and transparency and the wider pursuit of the public interest".

While Denham wasn't specifically referring to the extension of the FOI act, that is something she has spoken about before.

In her opening speech to celebrate 250 years of FoI dating back to a Freedom of the Press Act passed in Sweden in 1766 last year, she said: "Whether public, private or third sector organisations are delivering a service, the public's right to know should stand unchallenged."

She revealed that the Information Commissioner's Office, which enforces FoI law and promotes good practice, would present a report to Parliament in 2017 evidencing the need for transparency in public sector outsourcing. However, there is no update on when that will be.

Certainly, outsourcing in the public sector is not going away (just look at all the deals Capita keeps winning).

At the same time departments are becoming increasingly secret. As the Institute for Government points out, the most recent FoI data offers little reassurance that departments are taking transparency seriously.

"In the three months following the triggering of Article 50, the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) granted only 15 per cent of FoI requests in full," it said.

Now more than ever, there is surely an argument to strengthen the legislation, not allow departments to dilute it.

So here's hoping the ICO follows through with its plans to make a case for extending the legislation soon.

Otherwise Blair might no longer regret his decision. ®

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