Publication Schemes are supposed to publicise what information a public body holds and regularly makes available. The Information Commissioners Office have a Model Publication Scheme for District Councils in Northern Ireland, listing the type of information that they must make available.
You should publicise the fact that information is available to the public under the scheme. You should make sure the model scheme, guide to information, and schedule of fees are all available on your website, public notice board, or in any other way you normally communicate with the public. [Source: ICO Guidance]
As well as listing the information being made available, a publication scheme also signposts how to access it, usually offering URLs for online documentation. In theory this should cut down on needless Freedom of Information requests, since interested parties can find the information themselves without assistance. It cuts cost and improves transparency.
North Down council have (recently?) revamped their web presence, and in the process taken a step backwards in transparency. The new website has a nice look and feel, but it’s very light on information in some areas.
There is a page devoted to their Publication Scheme. However, it just lists the headings in their scheme and doesn’t link to the actual scheme. So the public are none the wiser about exactly what information is already available and how to access it. Mandatory items like the “most recent election results” are now missing from the website.
Oddly, at the time of writing – 21 March – not a single set of minutes from 2013 have been loaded onto North Down’s public repository. (Minutes tend to go online about one month after a meeting takes place: approved at the next month’s meeting. So I’d expect February’s minutes to be missing.)
Their Local Government Reform page also refers to “images on this page show our current boundary, and the areas (in red) which will become part of the new North Down and Ards district council”. Yet there are no images on the page.
Magherafelt District Council have a reasonable publication scheme. Some other councils go further and keep the scheme as a set of browsable webpages with live links to the information. However, Magherafelt District Council haven’t managed to publish any council minutes since June 2012, rather contradicting their publication schemes advice that “minutes of Council meetings available on the website”.
Back in 2009 I blogged about my experience asking Magherafelt District Council for electronic copies of minutes. After been offered paper copies (at a cost) they relented and sent them electronically. And after a struggle it turned out that the council had voted in March 2005 to publish their minutes on their website. But four and a half years later they still hadn’t got around to it. Seems that the wheels have fallen off that wagon again.
From past experience, I’d say that Belfast City Council has a pretty slick FOI process. However, checking their Publication Scheme tonight I found that the document (linked to from two different webpages) is dated February 2003 and has just celebrated its tenth birthday.
Someone in Belfast didn’t get the “memo” from the ICO that “Authorities which are still operating publication schemes from before 31 December 2008 should note that these expired on 1 January 2009.” While they might want to claim that they’re not a District Council and that the NI District Council model publication scheme does not apply, they could default to other model publication schemes for NI.
I’m sure the local ICO office in Belfast would be glad to offer advice …
Missing publication schemes, absent minutes and out of date documents lead me to make two conclusions: (1) transparency is not at the heart of local government in NI; and (2) members of the public are disinterested – or disheartened – and not reminding councillors and council officials that information is missing.
Neither of these is a sign of a healthy local democracy.