Yesterday, after attending a fascinating and in-depth briefing from Network Rail on their journey towards being subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, I was privileged to appear on a panel debating “In a world of Freedom of Information, does voluntary transparency still matter?” Although rather daunted by the illustrious fellow panel members – the Campaign for Freedom of Information‘s Maurice Frankel, the Guardian’s Jane Dudman and Sir Alex Allan KCB1 – I delivered a short address on the subject (as did those others). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the panel were unanimous in feeling that voluntary transparency does still matter in a world of FOI, but, just as importantly, that voluntary transparency does not and should not make FOI redundant. This is broadly what I said, with added hyperlinks:
A very wise man called Tim Turner once wrote: “The point of FOI is that you get to ask about what YOU want to know, not what The Nice Man Wants To Tell You”. And this I think is the key point which distinguishes the access rights afforded to individuals under Freedom of Information and related legislation, from the transparency agenda which has led to the UK government again this week being pronounced the most open and transparent in the world, by Tim Berners Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation.
At the same time as that first place was announced, cynics amongst us might have pointed to the fact that in the 2013 Global Right to Information Ratings compiled by Access Info and the Canadian Centre for Law and Democracy, the UK was in 29th place, behind countries like Kyrgyzstan and Sierra Leone.
There’s clearly a gap in perception there, and one that is not simply explained away by questions about methodology.
In 2012 Francis Maude said “I’d like to make Freedom of Information redundant, by pushing out so much data that people won’t have to ask for it”. While this is in some ways a laudable aim, it is simply never going to wash: there will always be some information which Mr Maude doesn’t want disclosed, but which I, or, you, or someone else, does (to illustrate this one only has to look at how regularly the Cabinet Office claims FOI exemptions and refuses to disclose).
By the same token Network Rail, who have disclosed an impressive amount of valuable data over recent years, would not, I am sure, pretend that they expect only ever to disclose information in response to FOI requests, when they come under the Act’s coverage in a few months. There will clearly be information which they will not be able to disclose (and for perfectly valid reasons).
The transparency agenda cannot simply sweep away concerns about disclosure of commercially sensitive information, or of personal data, or of information which might prejudice national security. But there will always be people who want this information, and there will always be the need for a legal framework to arbitrate disputes about disclosure, and particularly about whether the public interest favours disclosure or not.
And, as a brief aside, I think there’s an inherent risk in an aggressive, or, rather, enthusiastic, approach to publication under a transparency agenda – sometimes information which shouldn’t be published does get published. I have seen some nasty erroneous, and even deliberate, disclosures of personal data within Open Datasets. The framework of FOI should, in principle at least, provide a means of error-checking before disclosure.
When FOI was in its infancy we were assured that effective and robust publication schemes would ultimately reduce the amount of time spent dealing with FOI requests – “Point them to the publication scheme” we were told…While I am sure that, on some level, this did transpire, no one I have spoken to really feels that proactive publication via a publication scheme has led to a noticeable decrease in FOI requests. And I think the same applies with the Transparency Agenda – as much as Mr Maude would like to think it will make FOI redundant, it has, and will continue to have, only a minor effect on the (necessary) burden that FOI places on public authorities.
I do not think we are going to see either the Transparency Agenda dispense with FOI, nor FOI dispense with the Transparency Agenda: they are, if not two sides of the same coin, at least two different coins in the same purse. And we should always bear in mind that public scrutiny of public authorities is not just about what the Nice Man Wants To Tell You, but is equally about what the Nasty Man Doesn’t Want To Tell You.
1I’m delighted to see from his Wikipedia entry that Sir Alex is a huge Grateful Dead fan, and that further research suggests that this isn’t just Wikipedian inaccuracy
The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.