info2000 logo GREEN PAPER ON PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMATION
IN THE INFORMATION SOCIETY

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A joint response from the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action and the Information Workers’ Network


Introduction

NICVA (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action) is the principal membership non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Northern Ireland providing support and representation for and on behalf of Northern Ireland regional and community-based NGOs.

The Information Workers’ Network (IWN) is an informal group comprising representatives of over 140 NGOs that provide information and library services to a wide range of users across Northern Ireland. It seeks to raise awareness of the issues that affect those working in NGO information and library services and to promote good practice.

NICVA and the Information Workers’ Network welcome the opportunity to comment on some of the issues raised in the Green Paper particularly as the Freedom of Information Bill is making it way through the UK Parliamentary processes. We particularly welcome the opportunity to raise and consider issues of social inclusion and equality of opportunity as these relate to the information society. Our joint response to the Green Paper is concerned primarily with the accessibility of public sector information to NGOs and the communities and individual citizens which they, in turn, represent.

1 Which definition of public sector is the most appropriate?

Of the three potential definitions of the term ‘public sector’ offered in the Green Paper, the ‘functional approach’ seems the most appropriate for adoption across Member States. We understand this definition to encapsulate those organisations (business and NGOs) that are providing a public service task within the parameters of a formal contract with a Government department or non-departmental public body. A business providing a service to the public or a NGO providing care to older people under contract with a public sector body would therefore be included under the definition of ‘functional approach’.

Both administrative information and non-administrative information should be included. The former provides a method by which public sector organisations can be measured and made accountable for public expenditure and the degree to which policy has been implemented. Accessibility to the latter type of information provides vital evidence about populations and communities of people that can be used to determine both general and specific economic and social needs. The debate needs to consider how to define people that have a direct interest in certain types of information.

2 Do different conditions for access to public sector information in the Member States create barriers at European level?

One area where barriers are created is in the different ways that public sector information is made available across Member States. For example, some Member States are pro-active about providing information on what is generally available in the first instance. Others may not be as pro-active, requiring information-seekers to ask questions about what is available before actually requesting access to it. Certainly the same types of public sector information should be equally accessible across the EU. Equal availability of information would, for example, allow comparisons to be drawn between Member States on a given subject.

In terms of the timing of information, all information that can be made available electronically should become available at or as soon as possible after publication. With the advances in software and information communication technology, this should not pose a difficulty for public sector organisations. Where this is not possible Member States should set deadlines by which time all new information will be made available electronically. The EU Commission should consider ways in which all Member State public sector bodies can be equipped to take advantage of ICT capabilities. A period of two months as in French law and in the EEC directive seems an appropriate length of time in which to work towards making information available that is not already in electronic form.

The issue of whether or not to make raw data available, how much and in what format is an important one. Raw and intermediate data would certainly be useful to many organisations and to those engaged in research and lobbying. Whilst we understand that and accept the need to balance accessibility with the individual right to privacy, we feel that raw data, to some extent, should be available. It would also be particularly useful if public sector working documents could be made available as an aid to discussion and debate.

3 Could the establishment of European meta-data help European citizens and businesses find their way in locating public sector information throughout Europe?

NICVA and the IWN welcome the notion of creating a meta data, a one-stop-shop window as it were, with links to the Member States and to public sector sites. The European Commission’s website, Europa, provides a very useful window on the types of information available at Commission level and it is easy to negotiate. The UK Government operates an ‘open gov’ site along similar lines. The same principle could be usefully applied to raising awareness and locating information across Europe on the whole range of subject areas that affect individuals, communities and businesses.

Suggested outline subject categories for the meta-data system are:

  • Government – Member States; departments/offices & key responsibilities; local authorities.
  • Population – statistical profiles; area profiles; trends; opinions.
  • Social policy – health; social security; work; unemployment; education; training; housing; environment; poverty; social exclusion/inclusion.
  • Legislation – Government acts & statutes; business law; charity (NGO) law.
  • Economic policy – taxation; expenditure; strategic plans.
  • Key research areas
  • Business – patents; contacts.
  • Non-governmental organisations – Europe-wide, national, regional, local.

4 What bearing do different pricing policies have on the access and exploitation of public sector information throughout Europe?

A price that reflects the true cost of preparing data (statistical information for example) for distribution seems fair. Prices should be set to reflect the marginal cost of the work involved providing it is extra work and not work that would be carried out for statutory purposes anyway. However, pricing also needs to be balanced with the issue of right of access and the fact that, in the UK and other Member States, public taxation contributes to the cost of producing public sector information. For public awareness and reasons of accountability and openness, information about Government and public sector bodies should remain freely available, as is the case with a number of Member States.

Pricing documents automatically sets the accessibility of information out of the reach of many citizens. While main libraries hold information produced by Government in the UK that can be used for reference, local branches do not. Information that is electronically available can be downloaded freely. This creates an anomaly between those who have access to the World Wide Web (generally those with adequate incomes and above) and those without access (little or no income). The fact that information is so freely available in electronic format also, dangerously in our view presupposes that potential users, that is those that do have access to the Internet, have the ability to do so. In reality electronic access where it is available immediately discriminates against a range of groups on the grounds of age, ability and disability, and location. Any pricing policy should take into account these anomalies, particularly considering that the very information that might help the socially excluded is generally unattainable by them.

Related to the pricing issue is the issue of accessibility to electronic information. There are moves in the UK designed to assist citizens to access information in key access points via the public library system. These plans will ultimately assist people in urban and suburban areas but will not address the information needs of people in rural communities whose nearest library or electronic access point is likely to be situated in a town many kilometres from home. Creating new ways in which more information is available electronically would be helpful. Local meeting places (village halls, resource centres, leisure centres, and even post offices) could be utilised as electronic information points.

Widening electronic access brings with it the need for citizens to receive adequate training and skills development so that they can make a choice in whether to use electronic information points and, indeed, how these points can be useful to them.

5 To what extent and under what conditions, could activities of public sector bodies on the information market create unfair competition at European level?

Non-governmental organisations are not generally involved in obtaining information in a competitive environment as much of the information required is only available from one or a very limited number of sources. It is difficult to see how this question can be related to the information needs of non-governmental organisations and individual citizens. Most information produced by business is priced beyond the reach of many NGOs and most citizens; survey data owned by private research organisations being a particular example. Our view therefore, is that the more data that is produced by the public sector and made available, either freely or at a price that is allied to ability to pay and production costs, then the more accessible that information will be to those who need it and when they need it.

6 Do different copyright regimes within Europe represent barriers for the exploitation of public sector information?

The Berne Convention permits each Member State to determine the level of protection accorded to official documentation. In most cases this has resulted in a relaxation of copyright protected material from official sources. In the UK, for example, official documentation may be photocopied providing it is not for personal or commercial profit. Organisations can also apply for special licences to copy material that regularly amounts to more than the maximum allowed from one item, a newspaper for example. However it is our understanding that not all Member States have conformed to the Berne Convention and this may therefore inhibit the availability of information within Europe and between Member States. We would, therefore, recommend the introduction of standardised legislation that all Member States could apply to information produced by the public sector.

7 Do privacy considerations deserve specific attention in relation to the exploitation of public sector information?

In what way could commercial interests justify access to publicly held personal data?

Privacy considerations are undoubtedly crucial, and must be protected whether the information in question is available in traditional formats or electronically. This already requires limiting the kind of information that is made available and similar principles must apply to protect the identity of individuals in the use of statistical data. Publicly held personal data is usually available because of other needs, medical records, tax purposes, welfare issues etc. Commercial interests do not justify access to such data in its raw form without protection of the individuals on whom the information is held.

8 To what extent may the different Member States’ liability regimes present an obstacle to access or exploitation of public sector information?

This is an area where there is scope for an agreement between Member States to enable liability to be defined. This should be done from the view of protecting information providers who may be acting merely as the ‘conduit’ – but also to protect the consumer from falling into gaps between Member States’ own legislation.

9 To what extent are the policies pursued by the European Union institutions in the field of access and dissemination of information adequate?

In what way can they further be improved?

Experiences in using various websites show that simplicity and ease of use are crucial. The Europa website acts as a useful gateway to much information held within various institutions and departments within those institutions. Some comparisons can be made however between the ease of use and value of some of those sites. The most useful include not just final version documentation, but access to working documents at an earlier stage. In addition, the regularity of updating is crucial - the immediacy of access to information via the Internet has to be matched with immediacy of availability for the system to make sense. This requires commitment in terms of resources and time for those involved in maintaining a website.

1 Which actions should be given priority attention at European level?

Some barriers to accessing information are caused simply through lack of knowledge and awareness of what is already available. Therefore it would seem appropriate to prioritise actions based on awareness raising, education and training initiatives and demonstration and pilot projects. These could be specifically targeted towards those projects which ensure the involvement of all partners affected in the debate, not just private and public but including citizens’ interests, whether through consumer organisations or NGOs.

NICVA (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action) 
127 Ormeau Road, Belfast, N Ireland BT7 1SH
Tel: +44 1232 321224 
Fax: +44 1232 438350

Information Workers’ Network (IWN) 
c/o 127 Ormeau Road, Belfast, N Ireland BT7 1SH 
Tel: +44 1232 321224 
Fax: +44 1232 438350

Contacts:
Mary Magowan
email: mary.magowan@nicva.org
Nadia Downing
email: nadia.downing@nicva.org

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