Freedom of Information Bill suggests we are still stuck with old-world attitudes

Opinion: Minister was right to respond to objections to proposed fees amendment

Brendan Howlin: Digging in would have taken from some of the positive things he is doing in the Bill. Photograph: Frank Miller

Brendan Howlin: Digging in would have taken from some of the positive things he is doing in the Bill. Photograph: Frank Miller

Sat, Nov 16, 2013, 00:01

A new series of the political satire Yes Prime Minister was launched on the Gold television channel earlier this year. In one of the new episodes Jim Hacker, played now by David Haig as a more manic leader of a coalition government, goes into a meltdown about a controversy that threatens to precipitate his resignation. This, Hacker verbalises, could be the worst disaster to hit Britain since Dunkirk. Hacker is quickly rebuffed by Sir Humphrey, played now by Henry Goodman, who says he can think of worse crisis to befall the country since the second World War, suggesting “The Freedom of Information Act, for example”.

This notion that the British civil service viewed the introduction of freedom of information as a calamity has that proximity to reality that made the original Yes Minister series so cutting and so iconic.

Ireland this week had its own freedom of information controversy and it broke out, once again, along the traditional fault line between the public and journalistic interest in transparency and the tendency of many in government and the Civil Service to favour maximum secrecy.

Serious concerns were expressed by journalists and online commentators about a late amendment proposed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin at the committee stage of the Dáil debate on the Freedom of Information Bill 2013. This amendment would have allowed for multiple fees to be charged for a single freedom of information request if answering it required the involvement of different parts of a department or agency. Many of those who utilise the Freedom of Information Act best, including the people behind thestory.ie and kildarestreet.com, argued that these multiple charges would have effectively rendered the FOI system unworkable.

There followed a three-day squabble between Howlin and many people who had until then been most supportive of his efforts in the new legislation to improve and extend the operation of Freedom of Information. The Government’s cause in the argument was not assisted by some comments on and off the record from the department and from other Ministers designed to characterise the concerns raised as overblown and those raising them as overly intense. The Government sought to defend the amendment as designed to contribute to the costs of such requests whereas in reality it was designed to reduce the cost and hassle of FOI overall by deterring such requests.


Reworded version
Ultimately Howlin came to appreciate that the amendment was drawn overly wide and he withdrew it while suggesting that he would reintroduce a reworded version on report stage. It was a wise move on Howlin’s part not least because an unseemly row about the cost for such requests, albeit one confined as it was to narrow political and media circles, would have taken from some of the positive things he is doing in the new legislation.

This Freedom of Information Bill 2013 significantly extends the range of bodies likely to be covered by FOI and the categories of documents affected. It goes much, although not all, of the way to removing the severe restrictions on the original Act introduced in 2003.

Overall, however, when reading the Howlin Bill, one is left with a sense that we are still stuck in this country with an old-world view of public sector transparency. Even under the new legislation, the process will still involve journalists or others proactively requesting specific public records and will then involve civil servants having to trawl for, adjudicate on, catalogue and then copy whatever documents are relevant.

The debate in this country on the issue of freedom of information has been distorted by a, perhaps understandable, reluctance among the Civil Service to engage in what they see as a waste of Civil Service time fulfilling requests to feed a form of lazy journalism that disproportionally focuses on peripheral issues easily sensationalised, such as official expenses or the menus at diplomatic lunches.

The solution has long been apparent. The answer is to transform the culture of how our public service operates. Surely all of this energy could be better utilised towards the wholesale proactive publication of almost all public records in real time and in electronic format. Such a new approach, as well as ensuring greater accountability, would remove the mystique and undermine the “exposé” type presentation of FOI information. If, for example, departments routinely published details of expenses and the menus for publicly funded lunches, then not only would these be less lavish but the details would be less interesting and less tabloid newsworthy.


Shift in culture
Howlin and his officials have shown some regard to the need for such a shift in public service culture. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform itself has been responsible for publishing and encouraging other departments to publish, for example, line-by-line details of public expenditure.

In this new Bill, Howlin has also included a section requiring bodies covered by the Freedom of Information Act to prepare a “ publication scheme” specifying the classes of information that they have published or intend to publish proactively outside the Freedom of Information system. The Bill requires that they prepare such a scheme within six months and that they have regard to model schemes and best practice guidelines to be published by the Department of Public Expenditure. It’s a somewhat cumbersome process but it is a start. It provides a legislative basis for requiring the routine proactive publication of whole categories of information hitherto kept secret just for the sake of it.

The real battle for openness is likely to be in the detail of these publication schemes from each department and agency. These may be the best way to achieve real, and less costly, transparency right across the public sector.

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