David Cameron is right to be irritated with FOI!

A guest post by Lawrence Serewicz

The Freedom of Information Act has been attacked because of its apparent cost and the inconvenience it creates for organisations. David Cameron has expressed his concern over the FOIA requests that are all about the process. David Cameron is right requests under the Act do ask a lot of questions about the political process.  As a political leader, he wants to have the freedom to act without scrutiny.  As the Act creates a burden on the government machinery, it can also chill the government’s thinking.  A request under FOIA has an effect that is as bad as a politically motivated leak.

In his criticism David Cameron revealed more about himself than he intended.  As the Leveson Inquiry slowly grinds through the issues, the political process is revealed. We can now see the intersection between press, politicians, and the police. If FOIA had been in force 25 years ago, would we have had to wait so long to for Daniel Morgan’s death to receive the full attention it is now receiving?

What irritates David Cameron is exactly the reason why we need to strengthen and increase the power of the FOIA. The Act does reveal the “secrets” of the political process. Unlike the deep secrets like nuclear codes that protect the state, the “secrets” that it reveals are those hidden by an opaque political process.  The power of FOIA is that keeps politicians and organisations form being anonymous or hidden.  The politicians and bureaucrats do not hide in secrets; they hide in the political process.  What the FOIA reveals is not secrets, but the process and the overall political context.  If you do not know what the politician is doing, then they are hidden, and, therefore, unaccountable. If you know them only by their deeds, then the democratic process is weakened. Democracy is weakened when the people cannot influence the process or thinking that create the deed.

A second reason why David Cameron is right to be irritated with the Act is that it works. The Act allows us to exercise our democratic rights. When we hold a politician to account, we are exercising our democratic rights. What we show with that FOIA request is that the politician or organisation is answerable to the public. What the Act does is rebalance the relationship between the citizen and the state.

The challenge within a democracy, especially with a strong bureaucracy, is to get beyond the surface of an organisation to see how it works. The politically powerful can be seen all the time and they present themselves as they want the public to see them.  What FOIA does is allow the public to peer behind the curtain, to see them, if only for the moment, as they are.

Freedom of Information is more than government transparency. In the transparency agenda, the government is producing the information that it wants to disclose in the way it wants it disclosed. By contrast, the FOIA process is uncertain and democratic; it cannot be managed or packaged.  The public will ask what they want to know, not what the politician or the organisation wants to tell them. A question may be drivel, yet that drivel is democracy.  Why?  The question itself, and the fact that the organisation has to respond, is sign that the democratic political process works.  The applicant is acting to hold the organisation to account if only for it to comply with the FOIA.

Some critics argue that FOIA chills political discussions. Yet, this distorts the power and purpose of the FOIA.  The process to respond to an FOIA request is a rather dull one because the information requested is already created.  The information is static.  As a result, the organisation will be able to prepare itself for the disclosure or delay its disclosure to reduce any political effect. For example, the use of FOIA to obtain the Cabinet Minutes took years to get to the point of disclosure. Then they were withheld by Ministerial Veto.  Any political effect from the disclosure is only as an echo of original decision.  To put it differently but directly, by the time a request and a response get through the bureaucratic machinery, it is a known and managed political commodity.

The less access to information there is, the greater the reliance on leaks to obtain or disclose information. In contrast to the FOIA’s rather bureaucratic and stolid process political leaking by politicians or civil servants is dynamic and dangerous.  The leaks are not known, unless part of a political manoeuvre, so they cannot be managed.  They often present information out of context or in a raw form.  Ideas may be uninformed and speculative.  What we find is that the information is usually disclosed by politically motivated leakers such as politicians either protecting or savaging reputations.  Yet, they do not often serve the public interest so much as their own interest.

Lawrence Serewicz is Principal Information Management Officer at a local authority, blogs at http://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/ and tweets as @lldzne

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