Summary – a spoof article followed by a defence of Freedom of Information
In a new development from Westminster, senior figures within the Whitehall jungle have come out in support of a proposed new “Freedom from Information Act.” Its supporters say that the propose bill due to be introduced to Parliament following the next Queen’s speech is essential to cutting the deficit and helping the Government hit its targets.
Whitehall has estimated the costs of responding to freedom of information requests has topped £1billion per year. At current rates senior unnamed sources have claimed that civil servants will have to stop doing their day jobs of pushing paper and counting paperclips so as to concentrate on responding to requests about what ministers had for lunch yesterday.
Politicians have also claimed that there is widespread support from parents for this new measure. One introduced us to one of his constituents, who said the following:
“My daughter had her heart set on becoming a doctor, and was doing so well at school. But when she found out the true details of what the new higher education funding arrangements were, she became disheartened at the prospect of huge debts that she’s abandoned her career hopes. This has had an appalling impact on her exam results. The Freedom From Information Act would put an end to such damaging information being made accessible to young impressionable minds.”
Transparency campaigners claim that this proposed piece of legislation would stop scandals such as the MPs’ expenses from ever seeing the light of day. But proponents of Freedom From Information disagree.
“Parliament is perfectly capable of dealing with with financial misdemeanours – as was made perfectly clear by longstanding parliamentarians Jim Devine, David Chaytor, Elliot Morley and the noble Lord Hanningfield. It was this transparency nonsense that led to the downfall of many a fine politician. Being a politician is an expensive business – requiring expenses. What politicians choose to spend their expenses on should be a private matter.”
When asked whether he agreed with former MP Anthony Steen that ordinary members of the public were jealous that politicians had big houses, he said he agreed.
We then asked former Cabinet Secretary Lord Appleby about his thoughts on the new proposals.
“Oh they are excellent! What transparency campaigners have never understood is that it takes years and years of dedicated hard work, long hours of training and many a holiday spent on independent study and research to become a top policy official. Things that may not look good in the morning’s papers are often done for very good reasons – but for reasons that are either too complex and too complicated to explain for the world of soundbite journalism, or for which further discussion could prejudice national security. My old chums are terribly excited and are really looking forward to the passage of this piece of legislation – it’ll be just like old times!”
Another unnamed manderin concurred with Lord Appleby.
“How can you go about the complex business of public policy making and trying to formulate how to deliver public services when you are being constantly scrutinised by the public? Their role is to receive public services, not to comment on the service that they receive and certainly not to take part in deciding how they should be delivered! If they started doing that, where would it leave the civil service? There’ll be even more job losses than of the like we’ve seen in recent years. All of those delicate carefully-formulated plans will have gone to waste. And then what? Anarchy! That’s what I tell you! Anarchy!”
Now…all of the above is a spoof - with a wingtip to The Onion from an article I read over 10 years ago while at university.
But the real issue is around post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The BBC reported on it here and states that the Ministry of Justice said FoI had made authorities more open but had not improved decision-making. (MoJ’s full submission is here). I disagree – strongly.
The first job I had in the civil service involved helping prepare a regional office for the implementation of the full Act – Whitehall had first notice of a possible Freedom of Information Act when Labour was campaigning for the 1997 election, and would have had more than enough notice both preparing the Bill that became the 2000 Act, and the five years to prepare their records management systems for its implementation.
I’m not going to go into the details of some of the conversations I had with people, or compromise individuals. What I will say is that my observations from those conversations convinced me that the Act – and the push for transparency was, and is a good thing. For a start it encourages civil servants to think whether their decisions can be reasonably justified. In particular it puts a greater focus on the evidence – both what they have and what they need, in order to come to decisions. Transparency has also helped boost people’s understanding of how Whitehall and Westminster function. This means that they are able to ask more targeted and focused questions of those in power. As a junior policy official, this is the sort of stuff that made me want to get out of bed in the morning. Amongst other things it showed that people were taking notice of your policy area because they were asking reasonable questions about it.
There is also the digital and social media aspect of things as well. I described in a recent presentation how several years ago I described the internet as the antithesis of censorship. The development of social media makes this even more so. How to deal with it? Labelling more information as secret/classified is not the way to go about it. The less information that is locked away from prying eyes, the less likely it is to go walkies and end up on some website at the start of a social media firestorm.
Martin Williams at Liberal Conspiracy has written a very useful blog on how the delivery of Freedom of Information can be improved without changing any laws. Number 9 is particularly good. One of the things I did on a number of occasions when dealing with FoI requests was to phone up or contact the requester. This was to have a discussion about the request, to clarify points that were not clear and sometimes to say that either we had more information that we could supply/publish or that other named organisations may hold other information that may be useful for whatever the purpose was of their requests.
Culturally there are a number of people within Whitehall who see Freedom of Information as a threat or as an inconvenience. I saw it as a public service. I still do. I’ve given out (and still give out) advice to individuals and grassroots campaign groups. Last summer I stumbled across one while down in Sussex for PufflesCamp. I gave an ad hoc seminar on a picnic table to a group of campaigners at a climate camp. The local authority woke up on Monday morning with a handful of very painfully targeted freedom of information requests that it then had to deal with. The process of doing all of that I hope helped local people hold their local council to account for its plans on the issue they were concerned about.
If you want to see who submitted what to the Justice Committee in terms of written evidence, have a trawl through this link. Anything interesting crop up?