I’m very conscious, perhaps overly so, of the irony of writing a blog about FOI and openness anonymously. But for the moment at least, I think it remains the best way to do this. The next best thing is to explain a little about where I’m coming from – declare my interests as it were. And as it’s St. Valentine’s Day, what better way than to list the things I love – in no particular order.
1. The Freedom of Information Act
It may be hard to believe sometimes, but despite everything, I am passionate about this piece of legislation, regretted by some but valued by many. That’s why I write this blog. Even when I’m criticising requests or requesters, as I occasionally do, I’m doing so because I fear that irresponsible use of the Act may lead to it being watered down, or that at the very least diminishes its reputation with colleagues. And while people often lament its flaws, I think it’s one of the most open FOI laws in the world. Shame its drafters can’t be more proud of it.
2. The public sector and its employees
I’m constantly dismayed by the portrayal of the public sector and its employees by the media and politicians. It’s not so much a political football as a punchbag. And yes, there are people who earn too much (though not very many), or are lazy, or aren’t very good at their jobs. But guess what? There are in the private sector as well (I know, I’ve worked in both).
Every time a newspaper or an MP decides to take a swipe at a public sector worker or mock a job title that sounds silly to them, they might do well to remember that these are normal people, or in other words, readers and voters. They’re doing something, and meanwhile contributing to the economy, often supporting families, living by all those values that politicians love to espouse.
As one of my readers Tweeted last week, even those “back office” workers that we’re always told are ripe for cuts, are important because they ensure that the police, nurses, doctors, etc. can spend as much time as possible doing what they’re expected to do. If there are less “back office” and “admin” staff, you can pretty much guarantee that those “front-line” workers will be spending more time filling in forms, filing, and less on helping people.
And through it all, whilst being exposed for the crime of claiming a salary by their political masters, threatened with redundancy, and vilified in print, they keep, in the words of Churchill, buggering on. Being inventive. Giving meaningful advice (and, by the way, I’d rather listen to an expert who knows their subject than a politician who has studied the subject for five minutes in the back of their ministerial Jag). Trying to find ways to save money. Making their masters’ vague ideas actually work (and keeping them on the right side of the law). Administering justice. Ensuring those in need receive benefit payments. Getting us to work. Teaching children. Saving lives…
And many of them retain a sense of humour.
Can’t help it. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? The dodging and weaving, the crazy unpredictable deals. The making-historyness of the whole thing. And the sheer grandeur of our political scene. How can you beat the Palace of Westminster as a theatre for our national story? Or City Hall as the goldfish bowl of London politics?
I’m not party political, and I try to keep an open mind. That said, it’s probably fair to say that my politics have moved left of centre over the years. May last year was thrilling, and whilst I may be appalled at some of the consequences, I can’t help gawping on. Bet you can’t either.
4. The BBC
Comedian and songwriter Mitch Benn summed this up so much better than I can, but you know, I do love old Auntie. No doubt she has her faults, but come on, we pay, what? About three quid a week? For often brilliant television and radio which is delivered without interruption from advertisements. For quality impartial journalism, respected the world over. For mind-stretching documentaries that broaden our horizons.
Even its commercial rivals benefit from its existence. Their schedules are made up of programmes that are clearly inspired by the BBC’s work. Their ‘talent’ was often groomed (in the nice way) by the BBC.
It’s got to be one of the very best things about this country and without it we would all be the poorer. I have no objection to paying my licence fee (and frankly would pay more with pleasure). For goodness sake, they brought us…
5. Doctor Who
Yes, FOI Man is a geek. It’s a shock I know.
6. Information professionals
This is for all those librarians, information specialists, archivists, records managers, and of course FOI Officers. What we do has real value, and we shouldn’t stop fighting to make that clear to colleagues, politicians and the media.
I heard of the staff of one library service, threatened with job cuts of two-thirds, who were told by a senior manager that they weren’t needed anymore because of Google. Aside from the crass insensitivity and ignorance of this statement, it really demonstrates the arbitrary nature of some of the cuts that are going on. Instead of basing decisions on considered analysis of our public services, decisions are being made on the basis of managers’ and politicians’ personal prejudices and guesswork.
Sometimes you need people who understand the organisation, who know their subject inside-out, who know where to look, who understand the legal requirements, who can balance them with practical realities. In the Information Age you need the very best scouts to plot your path through the information jungle.
7. The NHS
Can you imagine getting seriously ill, or breaking your leg, and your first thought being “Oh God, did I remember to set up my insurance?” or “I wonder what my bank balance is?”. Thank God we live in the UK and have the NHS. We really should be very proud of it.
8. That things are sometimes very complex
In a few months’ time we’re supposed to be being asked whether we’d like a new voting system. I can already predict the main argument of the ‘No’ campaign. AV will be too complicated for people to understand. Really? Really? Yes, they’ll look you in the eye and tell you that people can’t write 1, 2, 3 in order of preference on a piece of paper.
Complexity is beautiful. The FOI Act could have been drafted to say exactly what information would be disclosed and what wouldn’t. It would have been simpler. But it wasn’t. We’ve got prejudice and public interest tests. We have to make judgments and balance theoretical ideals. It’s often not very easy. But it’s much more interesting and it means that the Act doesn’t stagnate – the boundaries of openness will be constantly in flux.
Current events demonstrate the value of complexity perfectly. Egypt had a very simple political system until last week. Now things will very likely never be simple again. Freedom is complex.
9. The Law
It’s not always convenient. Last week 200-odd MPs (perhaps that should be 200 odd MPs) found it so inconvenient they opted to vote to break it. Funnily enough, quite a few leading politicians around the world take this approach. They’re generally called Dictators.
Freedom is protected by the law. I’ve generally found that judges, despite their reputation, talk a hell of a lot more sense in their judgments than politicians do when they react to them. Next time you hear a judgment reported that makes them huff and puff with indignation, try reading what the judge actually said. He or she will have set out their thought process. It will be based on precedent and existing law. You might not agree with their conclusion, but at least you’ll understand why they reached it. And it will be based on reason and learning, not what will keep a few voters or vested interests in key constituencies happy.
10. And last but not least
She knows who she is. Without her encouragement, support and patience this blog wouldn’t exist.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day. Hope you’re as fortunate as I am today.