Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Yes Sir Humphrey

While sillyness among civil servants now appears endemic (see our earlier blogs One Step Forward, Two Steps Back and Archives? What Archives?), the latest development is almost a parody, worthy of a script from the BBC TV series Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister.

A scene from Yes Minister

The matter has been drawn to our attention by an SQA member who attended the recent AGM of the Association of Chief Archivists in Local Government and who was made aware of events in a general discussion following a presentation by Susan Healy of The National Archives on the subject of Freedom of Information (FoI).

In a meeting between senior representatives of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) and HM Treasury and representatives of the Local Government Association, the Association of Police Authorities and several local authorities on 26 October 2004, it was revealed the DCA had calculated the cost to local government nationally of implementing the Freedom of Information Act in its first year of operation i.e. 2005-2006 as £2.5 million.

This figure has astonished county archivists, chief archivists and other senior local government officers tasked with implementing FoI.

How was such a low figure arrived at? The answer is multifarious. Civil servants have placed great reliance on monitoring the earlier implementation of FoI in the Republic of Ireland whose legislation is not retrospective; analysis of the number rather than cost of FoI enquiries received by Irish authorities; failure to understand how potentially wide-ranging FoI requests to local government are likely to be; failure to apply analysis to all enquiries, technically subject to FoI, received by local authorities as opposed to enquiries specifically invoking FoI; and failure by civil servants to understand that the contact between local government and the general public is closer than between central government departments and the public.

An astonishingly arrogant remark was made by a civil servant on being challenged. The civil service had no reason to believe that local authorities are better placed than DCA to forecast likely volumes of FoI requests. As one local government representative observed, local authorities are assumed to have no particular insight into the nature of the requests they themselves will receive.

Local authorities expect to be reimbursed for routine rather than set-up costs of FoI from 2005 onwards.

We asked Benedict Crumplethorne, SQA spokesman on the Civil Service, to comment.

I'm afraid it's just another case of Foot in Mouth. The civil service, despite having relinquished so much influence to COREPER, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London and the English regions, is still the elitist and arrogant organisation it always used to be.

Senior civil servants know and care little about local authorities, only that they collect refuse sacks, organise recycling, operate tips and tarmacadimise some roads. So should we be so surprised they conclude local government officers might be asked to divulge information only on these mundane subects under the Freedom of Information Act? Education is practically independent from local government of course and who has heard of county record offices? Forget social services, local and strategic planning, council tax, car parking, parks and gardens, dogs, tourism, leisure, sport, cemeteries, housing, street cleansing, rights of way, sewerage and drainage, trees, transport and licensing.

Hardly controversial, these!

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