Richard Thomas: FoI law "largely a success"

The Freedom of Information Act has contributed to a cultural shift in our public institutions, the information commissioner Richard Thomas told the Society of Editors.

When the FOI act was first introduced is was something of "a fragile flower," he said, "exotic and unfamiliar" and perhaps resisted by parts of the public sector. Three years since the act came into effect - making us the 52nd country in the world to introduce an FOI law - it is largely a success, he said.

Sixty percent of requests are granted, and most of those are not the more glamorous requests that make the media but more "bread and butter" requests, said Thomas. "We have a right to know what the government is doing with our money in our public organisations, and that has resonated with the public," he said.

There are still concerns about the act, mostly because of timewasters making requests that are very time consuming and expensive for public organisations. Some information is also embarrassing in the public sphere. But, on balance, organisations now accept that if you withhold something it looks like you have something to hide.

From January, new legislation will mean that every public authority will publish a 'public disclosure' document that will list all the information they will disclose. "That will mean more minutes of meetings and organisational structures and that will usually be through websites."

Society of Editors: FOI is freeing our public organisations (The Guardian, 11 November 2008)