One of the things that struck me most when Elizabeth Denham was appointed Information Commissioner earlier this year was her background. After the career bureaucrat that Chris Graham represented, her background as an archivist and records manager seemed particularly refreshing. And not least because that’s (ahem) my background too. One of the things I’ve been wondering ever since is whether, and how, this would affect her approach as Commissioner. What would an archivist use the position of Information Commissioner to achieve?
Last night I was fortunate to be able to attend a panel discussion celebrating the 250th anniversary of FOI, and the answer was forthcoming. It was my first opportunity to hear Ms. Denham in person. She drew a clear line in the sand with what had gone before. In particular she laid out two aims in relation to FOI.
Firstly – and a thousand archivists punch the air – she announced that she would be seeking to persuade government to introduce a statutory record-keeping requirement. In answers to questions it became clear that she saw this as an answer to the decline of registries. She also mentioned other jurisdictions that already have this kind of legislation, notably in Australia.
Secondly – and a hundred thousand FOI campaigners punch the air – she indicated her intention to pursue the extension of FOI to private sector contractors. “We should extend the right to know about public service so it is independent of the service provider”, she said.
Ms. Denham told us that Parliament would receive a report from her office in 2017 pushing both of these agenda. This is a Commissioner like we’ve never seen before – a campaigning, activist ombudsman. Whether it will achieve more than the pragmatic, softly, softly approach that appeared to characterise her predecessor we will have to wait and see. But it is certainly a refreshing and exhilarating change.
With thanks to Article 19 and the Information Law and Policy Centre at the IALS for organising the event.