Freedom of information requests could apply to government contractors

Private sector firms which handled data for public sector organisations could come under the remit of Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation, if a Cabinet Office Review carried out by Southampton University’s Nigel Shadbolt find in favour of this proposal.

The revision to enforce data transparency if private businesses are working on the government’s dime was proposed as part of the Lib Dem manifesto before the election and the party is seeing through its promise, thanks to its position of power in the coalition government with the Conservatives.

Mr Shadbolt spoke to Computer Weekly about the review and said that the Transparency Board is involved in the process. He identified the problematic nature of outsourcing the management of public data to third party firms and then retaining the transparent nature of the data should FoI requests be lodged.

Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who is credited with inventing the web in the early 90s, are campaigning to make government data more accessible and open in its nature.

Significant attention has been drawn to this subject as a result of Suffolk County Council’s announcement that it would be seeking to contract out a majority of public services to private firms.

A meeting held by the Local Public Data Panel concluded that outsourcing data management might be used as a way to lessen the transparency of public sector organisations and protect their actions from independent scrutiny.

Government cuts are leading to the closure of almost 200 quangos and experts are attempting to call for the reams of data stored by these groups to be retained in the public interest. The panel, over which Mr Shadbolt presides, agreed that this data should be made available in the interests of transparency, particularly since during the heyday of the quangos there was a general reluctance to do so.

Not every quango is being disbanded, but campaigners are seeking to make the remaining bodies more accountable and open with the data which they generate and store in the future.

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