Saturday, October 16, 2010

two links about freedom of information

I do worry that a lot of the continued drive for government data release is really about the hope that the public will find useful sunday-for-monday press release fodder that will help spin the cuts. (By comparison, you try finding a full list of cuts.)

Did you know New Labour was spending your money on FRUIT FLIES? It reminds me a little of those Americans who started a Twitter feed to mock the 'baggers complaining about stimulus fund projects and found that hordes of people believed every one of their randomly generated line-items. If you sort the list by size, you'll find that the biggest organisations in it are the bits of HMRC that handle customer, or rather taxpayer, facing operations - processing tax returns, answering phone calls, dealing with visitors in person. All the stuff the guff squad gets het up about usually turns out to account for two AO 1s, half a desk, and a 10% share of the office dog's time.

Meanwhile, Angus Gascoigne points out a new Microsoft Dynamics CRM-based product that lets you "manage, track, and respond to Public Records Act and Freedom of Information Act requests in a timely and responsive manner". I'm actually quite positive about this. Incompetence is as effective a barrier to freedom of information as secrecy - in fact, it's arguably better. There are no legal bounds to incompetence. Also, quite a lot of FOI legislation, notably the UK's, has exclusions based on cost, which means that it's always in the interests of the government to maximise the costs of retrieving any given document. This is what the ISP industry used to call "strategic incompetence" in their OFCOM filings against BT - of course, we have to offer unbundling, but sadly your letter has gone missing yet again...

Making disclosure part of an automated workflow strikes me as nothing but a good idea - it's hard to do things the other way than the default.

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