Sunday, 27 October 2013

FoI for public sector contractors?

I have to say I was surprised today to hear of proposals that the Freedom of Information Act could be extended to embrace public sector contractors (quite possibility driven by a recommendation from the Social Enterprise UK ) .

I don't actually believe the rhetoric that such a move will force firms to compromise commercial secrets as, it strikes me, Section 43 of the Act already provides that protection. However, I do question how well thought through this potential policy is and what is likely to be the outcome?

Common sense suggests that since the Freedom of Information Act is now well embedded in the public sector it shouldn't be too hard to establish the potential value which would be delivered through the increased scope. For example, it would be useful to know how much cost has been added to the average public sector organisation answering FoI requests? It would also be comparatively easy to carry out some research with those who have made FoI requests to establish the real benefit gained? I have never actually made a FoI request but have had experience in responding. Responding to FoI requests consumes an enormous amount of time and there is a game of sanitisation taking place - a cottage industry has been created for bureaucrats. But equally many requests are just lazy, disguised market research at the expense of the public sector, it's information which isn't in the public interest but the costs are being shifted from the private sector to the public sector. Labour could place a FoI to get that information before pursuing the policy.

If the legislation is extended there will be an additional cost to private and third sector organisations just because they happen to be public sector contractors. There will then have to be some disaggregation of those organisation's work which is covered by FoI requests and which isn't. Those organisations being asked to respond to potential FoI requests will have to allow for that cost in their bids and that in turn will be passed to the public purse - those advocating the policy will need to budget for those costs. It may also be worth considering what the likely impact will be on mirco, small and medium enterprises?

However, if the issue is that the public sector isn't really on top of its contractors, then changes to specifications and contract  management may be more cost effective options.

Some months ago I discussed another Labour proposal, that of obliging all public sector contractors to pay the Living Wage. It strikes me that Labour can see public procurement is a useful political tool but I think it may be better to sit down with some sympathetic businesses and work out the most effective means as opposed to kite-flying.

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