This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Here in a nondescript building in the middle of this quaint village in the north of England is the heart of a system that could be a model for states and countries looking to modernize their information-access laws.
For more than five years, the U.K.'s Information Commissioner's office has been tracking Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from around the country, training specialists in each of the country's governmental entities and calling out intransigent officials who won't release documents. With typical English efficiency, a staff of about 50 helps the public get information for cities, towns and districts across the nation. The commission is also part of a multilevel appeal system that gives regular citizens a fair shake when going up against entrenched government.
For this Utah journalist who recently watched legislators enact and then repeal one of the world's worst information-access laws, the U.K.'s law, with an accompanying emerging culture of openness, is a breath of fresh air.
The British Parliament enacted its first comprehensive FOIA in 2000 and gave the government five years to implement the law. (President Lyndon Johnson signed the U.S. FOIA in 1966.) By 2005, the first information requests started rolling into all levels of U.K. government. The law got its first high-profile test when an American journalist living in London asked members of the House of Commons for detailed expense reports. This British version of Congress spent months dragging its heels as it blotted out names of individuals and attempted to protect other private information.
In the end, an insider leaked the information to The Telegraph, one of the U.K.'s leading newspapers. Day after day The Telegraph published details of Members' of Parliament (MPs) expenses for second homes, trips and other luxuries. Needless to say the public was outraged and the disclosures led to the resignation of the speaker of the House of Commons and other officials. Despite lawmaker calls to exempt themselves from the access law, Brits saw first-hand the value of open government and told their representatives there was no going back.
Key features of the U.K. system ought to be considered in Utah and other states as well as at the federal level. To begin with, MPs consider constituent emails public information. MPs have codified the idea that providing information is part of the government's obligation to its citizens. For example, all information requests are free up to very generous limits. Fees can be waived up to $964 in U.S. dollars for federal government requests and $720 for local government requests. This approach should help Utah lawmakers rethink a philosophy that a requestor has to pay every penny for a request.
Along with what appears to be an efficient and fair system to govern information access, the U.K. maintains a database of access requests and appeals. This provides statistics about how well the system is functioning and just who is making requests. It also helps government be more proactive as officials work to reduce backlogs.
The system is also easier to use when compared with many U.S. states' systems and federal information access laws. For example, a simple request for a record in an email and even on Twitter will start the clock ticking on a government response. Residents don't need to cite chapter and verse of the law to obtain a record.
U.S. policymakers can also learn from the U.K.'s appeal system. In Utah, it is often the same city council which denied the records request that then serves as a records appeal board. Rarely, if ever, do appeals overturn decisions to keep records closed. At the same time, Utah's law also allows local governments to choose whether a citizen can appeal to the State Records Committee, not just to district court. That's a huge flaw.
The U.K. system has independent tribunal and appeal systems staffed by information-access experts. It also doesn't require an attorney to make an appeal. The Information Commissioner's office goes out of its way to help citizens negotiate for records, often avoiding an appeal altogether. In short, the government often becomes an advocate for citizens.
Joel Campbell is a former reporter and current associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. His reporting does not necessarily reflect the views of BYU. He writes on First Amendment and open-government issues for The Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.