FOI Man puts his head in his hands over Prime Minister David Cameron’s latest comments on FOI.
Earlier today the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude was once again calling for more transparency in a talk to delegates at the Information Commissioner’s Data Protection Officers Conference. He gave the usual speech about the value of transparency, good for the economy, how it got governments “out of their comfort zones”. Yada yada yada.
As usual, there was no mention of FOI. It always seems odd to me that with the Cabinet Office embracing transparency quite so warmly, there is little mention at any time of the piece of legislation that has arguably done most to facilitate Government openness.
Also today, you may have spotted that the Government’s favourite Think Tank, Policy Exchange, published a report on transparency and open data. But once again, very little mention of FOI.
And now we know why. Because right at the top of Government, the man in charge thinks we’ve got it all wrong (the relevant bit is about 5 minutes from the end). FOI isn’t about what we want to know about. “Real freedom of information,” says David Cameron, “is the money that goes in and the results that come out”. We’re looking “through the wrong end of the telescope” apparently, wanting all this information about the process of governing and making decisions. And it’s “furring up the arteries” of Government.
The Government’s transparency agenda is great. I’m certainly not going to complain about it, and I’d encourage FOI Officers everywhere to see if they can get involved with it. But how the Prime Minister described FOI is exactly why we should have the general right of access (as it’s called) under FOI. We no longer live in a society where people are satisfied with being told “here’s what we the people running the country are prepared to give you – now go away and amuse yourselves with your iphone gadgets and wotnot while we get on with the important work”. Transparency is not enough if it means being grateful for what we’re given. True transparency allows individuals to interrogate their Government and other public bodies.
Some people think, I’m sure, that I’m making too much of all this FOI stuff. But it’s important. Let me explain why.
FOI is a way for individual people to take part in politics. Every election in recent history has prompted a debate about how people can be more involved in democracy, how can we get more people interested? How can we get people voting? Yet right here we have a mechanism which is used by real people – individuals (who in fact make most of the FOI requests, whatever some would like to suggest about the media and business) – who are engaging directly with public bodies to find out what they want to know. And what happens? There’s a post-legislative scrutiny and public bodies and politicians queue up to say that their interest in public life is too expensive and inconvenient.
It’s not just about individual people being able to ask questions and get answers, though. It’s about providing a further check and balance on those in power. Put simply, many eyes are better than few.
And some public bodies really do benefit from that extra scrutiny. Take the Greater London Authority, where I used to work. The GLA, as many of you will know, is the home of the Mayor of London. There has only been a Mayor, and a GLA, for the last 12 years – the whole thing was a creation of the Labour Government. The Mayor is supposed to be held to account by the London Assembly, a group of 25 elected members. But in effect, the Assembly has always had limited power to rein in the Mayor, not least because of its party politics. In that vacuum of accountability, FOI played an unintended, but essential role in keeping the Mayor and his appointees in check. They didn’t like it (either of the administrations), but it worked. They knew they were being watched, and when they did stupid or controversial things, FOI meant that people could find out about it. And with more councils moving to directly elected Mayors, that’s a lesson that others should learn from.
That experience confirmed me in the view that FOI can be, and should be, a powerful tool in governance of the public sector. What I find sad about the comments from David Cameron today, and those of his predecessor Tony Blair, not to mention Gus O’Donnell and the many council leaders who have attacked FOI, is that if they got behind the legislation, insisted that the public sector had to accept it and adapt to embed it in its processes, then it really could work very well. Public bodies would be more efficient because the information would flow inside them more effectively. There would be less security breaches and leaks because public bodies would be able to focus their attention on the most sensitive data. People really would start to have more trust in government at all levels because public bodies treated them with respect by answering their questions without grumbling.
But these benefits will never be fully garnered. Too many politicians and public servants have a blind spot about FOI. David Cameron, elsewhere in his session with the Liaison Committee, talked about the importance of accountability of public bodies to individuals – schools to parents, hospitals to patients and so on. Yet he can’t see that FOI offers that, and that by attacking it, he is, in effect, contradicting himself. I’ve seen the same thing happen with perfectly reasonable colleagues. They believe in public service and being accountable. But they get an FOI request to deal with and they start frothing at the mouth and panicking about how to answer it. Even when the answer is perfectly straightforward and the actions taken that are the subject of the request are utterly reasonable.
So I fear that even if our Save FOI campaign works, and we avoid the Act being watered down, FOI will continue to be an add-on in most public servants’ eyes. We FOI Officers will struggle on in the face of begrudging compliance from colleagues. We’ll have to defend something that we shouldn’t have to defend because our so-called leaders refuse to accept the will of Parliament and make it clear that answering questions is an integral part of providing a public service.