of Information Act, 2000 specifies how open government should operate
in the UK. Broadly speaking, citizens have the right to see any information
held by public bodies, unless there is a compelling reason to withhold
Open Government is a wonderful and a
powerful concept, allowing citizens to scrutinize the workings of
the government they elected. The information they collect allows them
- Understand the issues behind the headlines
- Campaign for and follow their special interests
- Assess the performance of government, and perhaps to expose problems
- Assure themselves that all is well in the administration of society
These are our rights.
Being open to public scrutiny helps public bodies to develop a public
service and accountability mentality, which is appropriate, since they
are elected and employed by us, to do the work of running our society
It all sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Great British Democracy in action?
Well, some time ago, the government held an enquiry into the BSE crisis,
and we are told that this enquiry cost £6 million. I wondered how
our government could spend this amount on an enquiry, so I decided to
test our Open Government, and I asked it.
The Government body responsible turns out to be the Department of Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs - "DEFRA". This article documents my
progress so far in trying to gain access to this information.
If you prefer, you can jump to my conclusion.
10/8/2001: To: email@example.com
I heard on the news that the cost of the foot & mouth crisis
so far is estimated by DEFRA to be 3 + 2 BN pounds.
I also hear that the cost of the BSE enquiry was more than 30 M
Please direct me to the sources for both statistics. I'd like to
understand how the £30M was spent, and how the £5Bn
15/8/2001: From: Gladstone.Pereira@defra.gsi.gov.uk
Thank you for your e-mail of 10 August to the DEFRA Helpline. I
asked to reply.
With regard to your query about the cost of the BSE Inquiry, you
may wish to look at the following website address which should provide
you with the information you require:
There is also a dedicated Foot and Mouth Disease website located
I hope this is useful.
BSE Correspondence Section
I can't find my response email, but I was able to
verify that neither of the web sites referred to contained the information
I was looking for, so I asked again.
Thank you for your further E-mail dated 15 August to Gladstone
You asked for some information about the costs of the BSE Inquiry.
By way of background, it is important to bear in mind that this
Inquiry was a massive undertaking. Lord Phillips and his team spent
nearly three years examining what happened day by day during the
ten years that led up to the announcement of 20 March 1996 that
BSE had probably generated a new and fatal human disease. More than
1,200 people submitted written evidence to the Inquiry; there were
138 days of public oral evidence from 333 witnesses; and the team
looked at 3,000 files of contemporary official documents.
Up to the time of reporting, the full estimated cost of the Inquiry
to the public purse was about £29 million. This figure includes
a number of separate elements:
- the BSE Inquiry, including the Committee, their analysis and
support teams and the reimbursement of direct costs of families
of variant CJD victims attending the hearings, which cost around
- the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, including the
costs of the Departmental Liaison Unit (set up to provide an interface
between the Department and the Inquiry), direct costs of serving
officials called to give evidence before the Inquiry and legal support
for current and former officials, former Ministers and current and
previous external government advisers. These costs came to about
- the Department of Health, including costs of their Liaison Unit,
direct costs of witnesses who were serving officials and legal support
for current and former officials and former Ministers, coming to
about £3.2 million;
- other administrations and departments (e.g. the Devolved Administrations)
sponsoring the Inquiry, including costs of Liaison Units, direct
costs of witnesses who were serving officials and legal support
for current and former officials and former Ministers, coming to
about £0.8 million.
Legal support for witnesses proved to be a significant element
in the overall cost of the Inquiry. Lord Phillips's team decided
at an early stage that such representation would be necessary in
order to ensure the effective presentation of evidence about individuals'
involvement in the BSE story to the Inquiry, helping the process
to be as thorough, open and fair as it could possibly be.
The costs of producing and distributing the Government's interim
response to the Inquiry Report were about £11,000. I am afraid
that we don't have any figures for the direct costs of departments
who contributed to the work. Your query regarding the cost of the
foot and mouth crisis has been passed to a colleague within this
Department and you should be receiving a reply shortly.
I hope this is helpful.
Many of you will feel that Hugh's response is an excellent one.
It's certainly well-worded, with an open feel, and quite a bit of
But this is a very high level summary - the cash chunks are still
very large, and they do not add up correctly. High level summaries
are often the starting point - not the endpoint.
For example, Hugh tells us that:
" - the BSE Inquiry, including the Committee, their analysis
and support teams and the reimbursement of direct costs of families
of variant CJD victims attending the hearings, which cost around
I think these things:
- £16m is a very large chunk. I would like to see the breakout
- what went where?
- How much did the committee cost us?
- (I'd also like to know who was ON the committee - what qualifies
them to be on it, and how they were appointed, by the way)
- What were these "support teams"?
Isn't this what's required for open government to work? The high
level summary cannot be used to understand the workings of government,
nor to satisfy oneself that things are as they should be.
What I'm after is a level of detail which is suitable for an analysis
of what went on.
Actually, I don't see why we can't go down to individual salary
levels. All of that information must be there - that's how the totals
were calculated, and the cost of providing it should not be large.
Many thanks for the response you have sent me, and for your time
in preparing it.
It does shine some light on the costs, but it is perhaps necessarily,
very high level.
It raises many new questions, and doesn't give me a solid feel for
where all that money went. I am reluctant to take more of your time
with follow-up questions, and I wonder if you can point me to the
sources which allowed DEFRA to arrive at its estimate.
For example, there might be a spreadsheet somewhere with a breakdown
of the cost estimates, or indeed a report whose conclusion was this
overall cost estimate.
Please let me know.
Thank you for your E-mail dated 5 September.
The information contained in my reply of 5 September to your earlier
E-mail was put together by our BSE Inquiry Liaison Unit. They advise
me that this information cannot be broken down any further or provided
in any greater detail.
However, to give you more of an idea of the time and effort spent
on the BSE Inquiry it may be useful for you to access the Inquiry
BSE Correspondence Section, DEFRA
14 September 2001
Hello again Hugh, and thanks for your reply.
You say that the information cannot be broken down any further.
Please clarify for me - do you literally mean that the information
CANNOT be broken down further, or do you mean that you are not prepared
to provide the breakdown? Either way, I'm not content.
If you're saying it cannot be broken down further, then I would
like to know how the estimate was constructed. The earlier information
you provide was very high level and could not have been the basis
on which the estimate was made.
Presumably the estimate was derived from a hierarchical of costed
sub components, and those were costed and written down. Presumably
we have civil servants costing, reporting, authorising and monitoring
However the estimate was contructed, I'm asking to see that information.
The website you pointed me at doesn't appear to offer anything useful
in this direction.
If you're saying that the derivation of the estimate is not available,
then I would like to understand why.
We've spent huge quantities of tax payers money on the BSE enquiry,
and I think it is reasonable and entirely possible for government
to share the details of that expenditure with the public who financed
If I have this wrong, please educate me.
Thanks & Best Wishes,
Two weeks went by with no reply from Hugh
I am still waiting for a response to my email from you. Do you have
response-time goals? Perhaps I'm being too eager. If you let me
know what your response time goals are I'll be sure to wait until
they expire before reminding you of outstanding issues.
Thanks & Regards,
Another two weeks went by with no reply from Hugh.
So I called him on the phone. He sounded embarrassed - I think he
thought he'd heard the last of me.
And remember we're talking about public employees,
paid specifically to correspond with the public on matters like
this. Hugh is being asked to do the job for which the public pays
his salary. His mortgage, his car, his dinner, his underpants -
are all publicly funded. (Should we open those to the public, I
After the call, I documented our chat in an email
to him. As you'll see, he is blaming someone else for the delays,
and that person is conveniently not available by phone.
Just to confirm our phone call today:
You are liaising with the person who can (or perhaps cannot) source
the information I am asking for.
You have forwared my enquiries & my reminders to him via paper
notes, but he has not responded.
This is the reason why I have been ignored since September 12th
- about 5 weeks ago.
Your system does not allow me to speak directly with him.
You express confidence that your next reminder you give him will
provoke a response in a short time.
Thanks for your efforts.
Remember that Mark's response, below, is now nearly
TWO MONTHS late.
Is this Open Government at its best?
He is making many of the right noises.
He apologises but does not explain his two month
He admits that they have very detailed records from
which the summary was generated, but thinks it would be "inefficient"
to provide them.
I wonder exactly why, and exactly how inefficient
that would be.
But of course, getting answers to those little pertinent
questions would be no easier that any others.
He closes with a very polite "sod off".
I wonder how far grounds of "inefficiency"
can be taken in denying public access to information in this way.
We look into this later.
| 09/11/2001: From Mark Filey
I know that you have had an exchange of e-mails with my colleague
Hugh McDonagh about the costs of the BSE Inquiry. I am sorry that
you have been waiting so long for a reply to your follow up questions,
seeking more detailed information about the money that has been
spent. I should explain that I provided the initial financial information
set out in Hugh's e-mail of 5 September.
I am sorry that the information I provided has not answered all
your questions. First, I should emphasise that the cost details
provided were almost entirely based on actual costs, rather than
estimates. The term 'estimate' was only used because there were
one or two unpaid bills floating around, which meant I could not
claim that the whole breakdown could be regarded as final expenditure.
Clearly we do have very detailed records of expenditure, covering
costs incurred by the BSE Inquiry and by DEFRA (other sponsoring
departments would have details of their own expenditure). However,
I do think that it would be a very inefficient use of scarce resources
to seek to provide further information on an Inquiry which spanned
3 years and where the records involved will therefore be both complex
and voluminous. The information we have provided to date gives a
full picture of the total cost of the process and the key elements
within it - we are very happy to be fully open about that. The same
information has been provided to interested MPs in the past, so
we are not trying to provide you with any less detail than our normal
response to such questions.
I do appreciate that this is an area where you have a genuine
interest and I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful on this occasion.
If you have more specific questions that you would like me to answer,
I will happily do my best to oblige. But it would simply not be
sensible - on resource grounds - to provide detailed breakdowns
for the entire costs of this Inquiry.
As is usual with these things, one finds oneself with no friends
in a place where everyone around you would like you to leave.
But you have to ignore normal social norms, and stick to the goal,
so here we go again...
Hello Mark Filley,
Thanks for your eventual response.
I am sorry that this rate of progress is the best you can manage.
I am also sorry that - according to Hugh McDonagh - I am not permitted
to speak to you by phone directly.
Please explain why that is.
I guess you calculated your costs hierarchically. I already have
the top of that hierarchy - it is the answer: £29 million.
You have gone further and given a very high level summary, from
which I can extract only the following:
Committee activities, £16m
Department of Health, £3.2m
Other administrations, £0.8m
Legal Support, "Significant element in the ... cost"
Report generation, £11k
[- £9m missing - about 30%]
I am surprised and dissappointed to hear that the report you gave
me has been considered sufficient for MPs.
Your recent email says you cannot provide the bottom of that hierarchy.
But I am asking for an understanding of the costs at the level
of a management summary.
This might be one or two pages in length.
These pages would not be verbage - they could be a crisp table
containing major expenditure items with costs.
They would be supported by explanatory notes expanding on the line
Typically management summaries explicitly account for all items
larger than 5 or 10% of the total.
Was such a report written? If so, may I have access to it? Aren't
there levels of detail below the one you have provided, which could
be made available at little or no cost?
Well, the rest of December ran its course.
Mark was clearly far too busy to deal with little old me.
Then came the new year, and half way through January
- another (the second) TWO MONTH delay since my last email, I still
had no response from Mark.
Is this how Open Government works throughout Great
I wonder, in a casual kind of way, how much Mr Filley
earns a year.
I imagine him living in a 4-bed detached number, in a leafy London
suburb, with a huge black car, doing his best for open government
in our Great Nation.
But then - enough about my mental problems...
Hello Mark Filley,
Please tell me why you did not respond to my email of November 12th.
In addition, please respond to it now.
I wasn't holding my breath.
Time to diversify, so I thought I'd see what my
local MP is good for.
He never responded to the email below. I wonder
why. I wonder if he considers ignoring constituents entirely is
a good way to represent them.
In fact, I wonder what HE does for his income too.
See our Electors section for more
Dear Patrick Hall,
I am a member of your Bedford constituency, living at [my address].
I have been working with DEFRA to obtain the detail behind the
cost estimate of £30M for the BSE enquiry.
I have received a high level summary, but have been unable to find
more detail. The people I am dealing with are very slow in responding,
and their responses are not very helpful.
I have been pushing this on-and-off since August 2001.
I know that your maiden speech supported open government, and so
I am particularly hopeful that you may be able to exert influence,
or provide advice on how to get the information I am want.
In case it is useful to you, I have included my most recent email
exchange below this email.
I look forward to hearing from you.
P: [phone number]
Meanwhile, back at the main event, I'm still hammering
away at Mark's door.
Please respond to this email with the name, email address and phone
number of your supervisor.
I will double the number of times I send this email to you each
day, until you respond with the infomration I have asked for.
I'm sorry but I do not recall having seen your previous emails on
this issue - following mine of 9 November. I will of course see if
there is any further information I can provide, but I doubt that there
will be, for the reasons previously given.
If you wish to speak to my line manager, her name is Dr Mandy
Bailey and she can be contacted on 0207 904 8054.
SEEMS UNLIKELY, MR FILLEY
You would need to not have received THREE emails over a period of
MONTHS to support your explanation.
I have tried to copy your boss on this email. Please let me know
if I got her email address wrong.
Dr Bailey - please consider this a formal complain against Mark
and his department. His responsiveness has been abysmal.
Mark, since your email seems to be wroking again now, please now
respond to the issue fully, comprehensively, and promptly.
Though slightly foolhardy of me, I should point out that you have
got Mandy's e-mail address wrong (I think you typed "Mailey"
I have forwarded a copy on to her, but I leave to you whether you
want to resend yours anyway.
It bounced - so I spotted it & corrected it Mark, but I thank
you for telling me anyway.
So, let's review the situation.
I started this little adventure into Open Government
on August 10th, 2001.
Now here we are on 22nd February, 2002.
That's more than six months, with no real progress to report.
I have gone through Gladstone Pereira, Hugh McDonagh,
and Mark Filley.
Mark has single-handedly added four months of delay to the process.
And now I'm at the desk of Mark's boss - Doctor
But though I'm at her desk - Mandy isn't. At least,
she is not responding to me.
Are we feeling good about Open Government yet?
Please respond to this.
[previous email attached]
COSTS OF THE BSE INQUIRY
I am responding to your e-mail of 22 February, seeking further
information on costs incurred by government as a result of the BSE
Inquiry and expressing concern that your earlier requests have not
been answered properly by this Department. I should like to apologise
straightaway that our response to your enquiries has not been more
I understand you have received some information on the costs of
the Inquiry already. Namely, an explanation of the total amounts
involved, and how individual Departments fit into the overall picture.
This information identified the main activities covered within Departments'
expenditure totals: in particular, the costs of Departmental Liaison
Units (set up to provide an interface between the main Departments
involved and the Inquiry), direct costs of serving officials called
to give evidence before the Inquiry and legal support for serving
and former officials, former Ministers and serving and former external
government advisers. This is consistent with the level of information
previously provided to MPs and other correspondents. However, you
have also requested a more detailed breakdown covering major expenditure
items, along with costs and explanatory notes.
There are rules covering public access to Government information,
which oblige Departments to provide details about public services,
including what they cost, and to respond adequately to requests
for information. This Department takes its responsibility to openness
seriously, endeavoring to respond positively to all enquiries from
However, there are some circumstances where Government Departments
can be exempted from the general commitment to provide information.
In particular, where requests for information are vexatious or manifestly
unreasonable or are formulated in too general a manner, or which
(because of the amount of information to be processed or the need
to retrieve information from files not in current use) would require
unreasonable diversion of resources.
/I do not suggest
I do not suggest that your request is vexatious or manifestly unreasonable.
But it does require significant diversion of resources. The BSE
Inquiry was a major administrative exercise. It ran for almost 3
years, culminating with the publication of the Inquiry report in
October 2000. The process was sponsored by several Government Departments:
MAFF; the Department of Health; and the Health and Agriculture Departments
in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. To bring together information
covering individual Departments would in normal circumstances represent
a major task. To try to do so now that the Inquiry's secretariat
has been disbanded and individual Departmental Liaison Units are
no longer functioning would be even more difficult. We would need
to retrieve numerous files no longer in current use. Other Departments
involved would need to take similar action.
Satisfactorily considering your request for further information,
involves the balancing of several considerations: the fact that
some relevant information has already been provided; the degree
of difficulty involved in obtaining the supplementary details you
require; and the considerable demands that would be made on busy
staff in tackling your further request - necessarily diverting them
from other pressing tasks. In the circumstances, my firm conclusion
is that further work would not represent an efficient use of resources.
I am sorry to have to give you disappointing news. I would wish
to assure you, however, that I have reflected carefully on your
request. Should you wish to discuss my decision, please feel free
to contact me.
Dr J A Bailey
Head of BSE Division
Mandy's email exhibits a characteristic which I see a lot from
officials dealing with the public: it includes a lot of information
I did not ask for.
This can have two unfortunate effects, which may or may not be
- The sea of words can conceal how little of the information
I asked for is present
- These words provide a platform upon which to exhibit jargon
and a superior knowledge-base, which can sometimes intimidate.
If you're conducting an enquiry of your own, you might want to
watch out for these.
To illustrate this, I have isolated the new and relevant
content from Mandy's email.
It is simply this:
- Sorry that we have not provided timely responses to you.
- Providing more detailed information would be too expensive.
- I am sorry about this - we can discuss it if you like.
So I did...
Thanks for your reply.
However, it is unsatisfactory on two counts.
Firstly, I copied the email I sent to Mark to you, as his supervisor,
as a complaint.
I said so in the email. As Mark's supervisor, I hope you are interested
in being made aware of his apalling record in persistently failing
to respond to me, and that you'll see this in a broader context, in
which I have been trying - and failing - to get the information I
require for many months now.
Please explain why Mark's performance has been so unfathomably
Please then explain what you intend to do to improve his performance,
and that of the other employess at DEFRA who I have had the miserable
chore of dealing with.
Secondly, on the information itself - you have not addressed my
argument about providing more detailed information.
That argument goes like this:
1. You have all of the information - that's how you derived the
2. Though the analysis was doubtless very expensive to do, the
result is probably summarised in a single spreadsheet or other document.
3. So the cost of providing the data is therefore unrelated to
the cost of deriving the data. In this case, the cost of providing
it would presumably be the cost of attaching the spreadsheet to
an email and sending it.
Do I have this wrong?
Please respond on both issues.
Thank you for your further emails of 5 and 11 March.
I am of course interested in being made aware of any deficiency
in the performance of my staff. However, as Mark has explained to
you himself, the reason he failed to respond to your earlier emails
is that he did not receive them.
Mark is an extremely capable and hardworking member of my team
whose work if of a very high standard. In considering your complaint
I have taken into account his record of responding to requests for
information both within and outside of the Department. I do not
feel that any action is warranted to improve his performance in
You are clearly dissatisfied with my explanation of why we cannot
respond to your request. I am not claiming that we do not have the
information. As you rightly point out, the totals that you have
been given already were generated originally from the payment of
individual invoices. However, this data is not stored in a form
which enables us to extract it easily, particularly with respect
to identifying specific items of expenditure above a particular
There has not been a report on the costs of the Inquiry. We have
provided you with the management summaries that are readily accessible
which have also been used to answer questions raised by Members
of Parliament. To get to a level below that will require a detailed
search and analysis. I am afraid that I simply do not have the resources
available to undertake this work. Furthermore, given my business
priorities, I could not justify diverting resource from other activities
to meet this request.
In your later e-mail you asked me for a copy of the rules covering
public access to Government information. A copy is enclosed:
So here is the reality of Open Government in this
They have the data I want to see, but they're saying
it would be too expensive to convert it from its present form, into
a form suitable for me. Therefore I can't have it.
So - we have open government in theory, but in this case, we can't see
the data because it would cost too much to translate it into a suitable
I've been a manager, I've seen a lot of reports. I've managed budgets
of millions. I can't see how it can be true that preparing anything other
than a high level summary is so expensive.
And I wonder how the government does its management if it does not have
readily to hand, right now, a report of the kind I'm asking to see - containing
useful levels of information. Levels which allow the posing of pertinent
I can't know, but I suspect that this is a smoke screen.
No one is saying - "Bugger off - we have secrets to keep here".
- by their taking weeks or months to respond to every email
- by their responses addressing only a few of the issues raised
- by those responses being themselves incomplete and hidden within a
sea of superfluous verbage
- - in summary, by their plodding intransigence
- they may just as well be saying "Bugger off - we have secrets
to keep here.
Well, it isn't going to stop here. I'll press on. I'll review the government
regulations, learn the right trigger phrases, and then use them. If necessary,
I'll march on up to Mandy's boss and beyond. I'll also send my MP another
email, and ask him why he ignored my previous email. You can bet I'll
get a timely and comprehensive response. Yeah, right.
Why am I doing this?
In the dim and distant past, I wanted to know how we spent £6m
on the BSE enquiry. Then I wondered why that was turning out to be so
hard to do. Now I'm wondering if anyone anywhere gets to exercise their
right to an Open Government satisfactorily.
Perhaps you can tell me.
It seems to me that we need thousands of people like me, all hammering
away at government departments, trying to gain access to the details of
Together we'll get better at it. More knowledgeable and more efficient.
We'll advertise the truth about the reality of open government in the
Then the power of Public Scrutiny can come
If you want to play a part, please contact us.
We need all the help we can get!
You can follow progress which has not yet been documented here,
at the BSE thread
in our forums.