Private companies running public services with taxpayer money should be more accountable to the public, the information watchdog has said. 

A new report by the Information Commissioner’s Office says that there needs to be more transparency when public services are outsourced.

The report says that the outsourcing of more public services has created a “transparency gap”.

Among a series of recommendations the ICO said there should be considerations as to whether private companies being paid by public money could be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

“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,” said the ICO’s Steve Wood.

“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.”

At present it is possible to request information held by private contractors, such as G4S and Serco, but this has to be asked for from the public authority.

However this heads to complications about what is held on behalf of the public authority by the private contractor. There are also no repercussions possible if a private provider fails to provide the authority with information that has been requested.

The Labour party has pledged to extend the FOI Act to private providers if they win May’s General Election.

A poll conducted by the ICO said 75% of people thought it was important that private companies acting on behalf of public authorities should be subject to the FOI Act.

“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,” Wood said.

“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.”

The full ICO report is below: 

ICO Outsourcing Roadmap

I am a journalist and author. I am a journalist at the UK edition of WIRED magazine. In 2015, my first book Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. My second book Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, was published in March 2020. I created FOI Directory in 2012 and have maintained it in my spare time ever since.