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    Tuesday, 17 April 2007

    Who needs freedom of (trivial) information?

    A noteworthy article by David Walker in the Guardian last week focused on the use and misuse of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (it passed under my radar at the time, but was highlighted today by martinstabe). The piece offered a litany of trivial uses, and on the strength of this proceeded to pose a series of rhetorical questions about the wider utility of the mechanism. It was hung on the fact that the government seems to have reneged on its reform plans, and also on the ballyhoo regarding Gordon Brown's (perfectly legitimate) decision not to follow policy advice on pensions ten years ago (a fact revealed under the FoIA).

    I don't understand the point of this sort of piece. Of course, as was ably demonstrated, the FoI Act will be used by muckrakers to witless ends. But ultimately, so what!? Its a non sequitur to conclude that the mechanism is therefore useless or worse. For every asinine request, there have been others that have proved important to the business of democratic scrutiny (for plenty of examples, see holdthefrontpage, and for more general comment see the UK Freedom of Information blog).

    Walker does make a useful general point about the wisdom of releasing policy advice into the public domain. He suggests that: "only people who know little about how government works shout for publication of the 'analysis' on which decisions are made, as if the process were stepped and linear. The problem is intolerance of the business of government, which, like any business, depends on free and privileged exchanges between adults".

    The intolerance diagnosis is correct. But here again, I think there's a mistake. The immaturity of public sphere debate in the UK - the 'intolerance' of the fact that decisions will not satisfy everyone - has been caused in part by overweaned government secrecy. More openness on policy advice would allow the foundations of decisions to be set out, and considered by everyone interested. The question of disclosure should be focused on appropriate timing rather than on whether or not. In such a context, those attempting to stir up 'passing frenzies' by reference to partial information - self-interested cadres of opposition politicians and compliant hacks - would be more widely recognised as brigands and buffoons.

    4 comments:

    Anonymous said...

    For a more considered piece (also from the Guardian on FoI and the implications of the 'sting' that has embroiled Gordon Brown in pensions controversy, see:

    The price of candour.

    The article concludes with a reference to a study of newspapers' use of the FoI Act (in 2005), which (provisionally, I think) concludes that FoI increases accountability and public understanding, but also that the hostile tone of reporting undermines trust.

    Andrew Scott said...

    The research in question was conducted by the UCL Constitution Unit. You can gain an overview here. It should also be said that there is much of value in the comments follwoing the Michael White piece highlighted above.

    J said...

    The relationship between the government and the media is an interesting one. I agree that there is an inevitable hostility in the tone of media reporting when they are doggedly pursuing government "secrets". Nevertheless, let us not forget it was the lost of trust in an unaccountable government that either directly or indirectly gave birth to the FoI Act.

    Anonymous said...

    That media reporting of information released is a major part of the problem is demonstrated in this blog.

    If you read the advice then officals take a pretty neutral perspective on CHX's plans - http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/A29/D1/foi_dividend_03.pdf

    I don't think you need to be well versed in mandarin or know the authors for this to be clear.

    The problem is that many people, even those who know all about editorial bias, simply don't read the source documents disclosed.

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