Last month I provided an update on my Freedom of Information request to the UK Cabinet Office on the subject of ODF formats. I’ve still not heard anything back, but obviously in the light of the good news about the choice of ODF as the official UK government interchange format, that request has become a little moot. What I didn’t say at the time was that I put in a similar FOI request to the UK’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), again using the indispensable WhatDoTheyKnow service. I didn’t bother mentioning it, because this was the reply that I received:
I am writing to advise you that, following a search of our paper and electronic records, I have established that the information you requested is not held by this Department.
End of story, I thought – although it seemed slightly strange that Microsoft had not been bending the ear of this department too: was it losing its grip, I wondered? However, I have just received the following further communication from BIS that explains what actually happened:
Our previous response to this request stated that the Department did not hold any relevant information. Subsequently it came to light that the Department does hold the information yourequested.
Nice that BIS is so efficient; so what have they sent me? Well, nothing, actually:
The information you requested is being withheld in accordance with the following exemptions of the Act.
The information held relates to the formulation or development of government policy. There is a public interest in favour of disclosure of information as this brings greater transparency to the policy making process.
However, we consider that in this case this transparency also poses a risk to the protection of the decision-making process which needs to be based on a broad assessment and discussion of options. There is a public interest in ensuring that companies are able to engage with Government regarding policy development which would have an effect or impact on their business without their views being made public. In turn Ministers must be able to discuss and consider possible future options within their Department and with cabinet colleagues, exploring all plausible scenarios and setting the scene in as full a way as possible. If ministers thought that their policy discussions would be revealed publicly, the nature of those discussions would be very different. It might deter ministers from raising radical or controversial options and having free and frank discussions about all available possibilities in relation to any given policy or idea. This would have a detrimental effect on both the process of collective government and the quality of the decisions made at the highest level, undermining good government. This would not be in the public interest.
This is really one of the most ridiculous get-out clauses, because it is so wide. The whole point of the FOI system is so that we can see precisely what is being said in these discussions, and to find out what companies are saying behind closed doors – and what ministers are replying. Although it’s laudable that the Department for Business Innovation and Skills got in touch to correct its response to me, it’s rather rich to do so and then simply refuse point-blank to release any of the information it has just found.
The only consolation is that whatever Microsoft whispered in the corridors of power to de-rail the move to ODF – since I hardly imagine it was a fervent supporter of the idea – it didn’t work. However, there are doubtless many other occasions when it did, but we will never know. That’s just unacceptable in a modern democracy.