Headlines: June 19th, 2003

Public services will have to operate a new style of open government when the Freedom of Information Act goes live on 1 January 2005. The newly created Department for Constitutional Affairs, with responsibility for implementing the Act, is concerned that when citizens gain their new rights to information about actions and decisions, public bodies will not be ready for the radical change. The Act will cover some 100,000 public bodies including central departments, local government, police, the health service and schools and universities.To give effect to the Government’s aim to promote fairness, rights and responsibilities and build trust and credibility among members of the general public there must be free access to information. This includes allowing citizens to scrutinize actions and decisions so they can see how an issue was dealt with and the reasoning behind the decision. This contrasts markedly with the current situation where citizens are told only that which the public authorities think they need to know. This radical move to open government will require a change in culture, not just in processes. Lord Filkin, Minister at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, said: “This government wishes to see citizens equipped to play an active role in the work of public bodies, which exist to serve them.”

There is also concern that the set up of procedures and training of staff to use them is falling behind. The effect of this could be that responses to requests from members of the public would not be met within the 20-day timetable specified by the legislation.

It is believed that one significant effect of the Act will be a drive for better records and information management across the public sector.