In Nottingham, culture drives FOI decisions more than real dedication to transparency

Stories are an integral part of directing culture. The action behind the stories  are shaped by what produces the most tangible results. One leading thinker in the business world describes it this way:

“Ultimately, people don’t even think about whether their way of doing things yields success. They embrace priorities and follow procedures by instinct and assumption rather than by explicit decision—which means that they’ve created a culture,” said Clayton Christensen, author and professor at Harvard Business School. “Culture, in compelling but unspoken ways, dictates the proven, acceptable methods by which members of the group address recurrent problems. And culture defines the priority given to different types of problems.”

Basically,  actions must match declared priorities in order to effect long-lasting change. However, we often see government officials claim to embrace transparency only to behave secretively in seeming opposition.  An example of this was seen in the United Kingdom.

A town made famous in part by tales of Robin Hood robbing the rich and giving to the poor seems to be in need of a modern-day hero to protect citizens from their seemingly stingy government and its lack of transparency.

Nottingham City (UK) officials established a standard of access to government information, set forth their commitment to open government on their Access to Information page:

“Nottingham City Council is dedicated to providing the easiest possible access to information while protecting individuals’ privacy,” the page reads.

However, those who respond to freedom of information requests often complain of the excessive time and expense spent in providing this information.

Nottingham is the only city in the country that will not release a monthly report on expenses over £500  ($776.30).  Their explanation? Compliance would cost the city more than £100,000 year, ($155,260) explained John Collins, Nottingham City Council leader.  He also said FOI requests have run the city annually upwards of £500,000 ($776,300).

However, one UK blogger discovered Collins’ estimation of the cost burden of Freedom of Information was off by about £430,000 .  A response to a Freedom of Information request regarding the city’s financial output in this sector on the city’s disclosure log — indicated the actual amount spent on responding to FOI requests was somewhere around £64,000 ($99,360) per year. At the very least this raises questions as to where Collins got his cost estimates.

Apparently Nottingham’s culture toward government transparency was not being guided by fact and their purported ‘dedication’ to  providing information. This  illustrates the necessity of journalists in maintaining what many governments claim to be a priority: transparency and open government. In other words, follow the journalist’s creed to trust but verify.

Whitney is the summer Pulliam/Killgore intern with SPJ. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University after studying journalism. Connect with her via email –  wevans@hq.spj.org –  or on twitter – @whitevs7

*Know something about Freedom of Information that you think we should cover in a blog post? We want to hear from you! Send information to wevans@HQ.SPJ.org. It may be featured in a future post.

 

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