I was very interested to read an article in SC Magazine UK citing a litany of hardware lost or stolen from the Ministry of Defence over a 2 year period. The article estimated that this cost the tax payer in excess of £777,000 in hardware costs alone. We can only guess at the value of the information that was stored on the laptops, phones, DVDs and memory sticks that are now AWOL. http://www.scmagazineuk.com/ministry-of-defence-lost-340-laptops-in-the-last-two-years-and-only-disciplined-nine-staff/article/175122/
However, as a PR professional, I was intrigued to see that this information was elicited via a Freedom of Information request by Lewis PR.
There were three companies quoted in the article: criticising the department and citing best practice on device encryption and remote locking and wiping of devices that are reported lost or stolen. Out of interest I Googled each company and each was a client of Lewis PR.
Rather than “issues highjacking” and providing clients’ responses to breaking news, this was a extremely carefully planned campaign that created an opportunity for 3 clients to comment on the same story.
This got me thinking. With the current “bonfire of the quangos” heralding the demise of 17 advisory bodies including BECTA; the WEEE advisory body and Martha Lane Fox’s digital inclusion campaign (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/jul/19/business-quangos-scrapped-coalition-cuts how much does it cost the UK government, and therefore the tax payer, to respond to FoI queries?
According to the Information Commissioner’s Office FAQs site, FoI requests will be answered free of charge, save the cost of printing, copying and postage, up to a limit of £600 per request for central government departments or up to £450 for other public authorities.
“Where the limit is not exceeded, the only charges that can be passed to you are those associated with providing the information, for example photocopying and postage. These are collectively known as disbursements.” – Information Commissioner’s Office, FAQs (http://www.ico.gov.uk/Global/faqs/freedom_of_information_act_for_the_public.aspx)
But how many people are employed to respond to these queries? And how is this cost recouped?
Journalists are always telling PRs that they need facts and figures to back up stories and clearly the FoI request service has provided a useful mechanism for bringing important data into the public domain.
However, while UK government departments’ budgets are being slashed to the bone, how long will this be available free of charge to PRs?