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ICO calls for greater transparency around government outsourcing

The ICO has called for a better reflection of the importance of transparency in government outsourcing.

In a report published yesterday, the ICO reports “a transparency gap has opened up in the provision of public service”, and sets out a range of solutions to tackle the issue.

Commenting on the report, ICO Head of Policy Steve Wood said:

“It isn’t a secret that the growth in outsourcing has led to a fall in transparency, as freedom of information laws haven’t always been able to follow the public pound. But this isn’t an insurmountable problem.“We’re calling on public authorities and contractors to consider transparency from an early stage, before a contract is even signed. And we’re asking whether the government might need to step in to make sure the public can access the information they should be entitled to from big government-funded contractors.”

It is estimated that expenditure on outsourced public services accounts for about half of the £187 billion that the government (including the NHS and local government) spends on goods and services, with the local government outsourcing market alone said to be worth £30bn.

In a survey carried out for the ICO, 75% of people said it was important that private companies acting on behalf of public authorities should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

The Freedom of Information Act currently allows people to request information held on behalf of a public authority. This can include information held by contractors, but it can be complicated to define precisely what that means in particular cases.

Steve Wood said:

“This level of uncertainty is no longer acceptable. One solution would be for public authorities and contractors to better consider what is held on the public authority’s behalf at the outset of their relationship. Another approach would be for the government to change the law, to give a more specific steer to public authorities about when information held by the contractor would be caught. There is also merit in considering whether certain contractors should be designated as public authorities under the Act.

“We’d like to see a better reflection of the importance of transparency, both as a tool to promote democratic accountability, but also as a means of improving service delivery.”

Transparency in outsourcing: a roadmap

The ICO has also produced a separate document on outsourcing and transparency, which gives practical guidance for public authorities:

Outsourcing and freedom of information - guidance document

Notes to Editors

  1. The Information Commissioner’s Office upholds information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.
  2. The ICO has specific responsibilities set out in the Data Protection Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.
  3. The ICO is on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn. Read more in the ICO blogand e-newsletter. Our Press Office page provides more information for journalists.
  4. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides individuals or organisations with the right to request official information held by a public authority. The Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) provide access to environmental information. The ICO’s policy on enforcing public access to official information and the powers at its disposal are set out here. In Scotland, freedom of information is a devolved matter and Scottish public authorities are subject to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 which is regulated by the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner in St Andrews.


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