Information and freedom

Tue, Aug 27, 2013, 13:28

This Government promised a “democratic revolution” when it was elected more than two years ago. There is little sign of that happening. The power of the Executive is overwhelming. Civil and public servants remain largely unaccountable. There is excessive centralisation. And the decision making process remains opaque. A small step towards greater transparency, concerning the actions of government and State bodies, is being offered through the Freedom of Information Bill. It proposes to reduce the financial charges and disclosure limitations imposed 10 years ago and extend the remit of the Information Commissioner. Its success will be determined by political commitment.

Information is power and those who possess it have used it as a control mechanism. Control over government-related information by senior officials encouraged elitism and a lack of accountability. The Official Secrets Act influenced the early State and directed that all decisions involving government and public agencies should remain confidential. It created a stultifying environment.

That changed in 1997 with the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act. It established a citizen’s “right to know” about government-held information, at minimum cost, barring standard commercial and security exceptions. In particular, it opened up decision-making by government and non-commercial State agencies to media scrutiny. As might be expected, it was not universally popular, either with ministers or public servants. The tradition whereby a minister signed or annotated major Cabinet policy decisions and reports fell out of favour because it provided a unique paper trail concerning the political process. Recordings of controversial meetings by civil and public servants also declined. In 2003, the then government amended the Act, introducing high fees and severely limiting access .

Minister for Public Enterprise and Reform Brendan Howlin has reversed some of these changes, reducing fees and providing for Cabinet disclosure within five years. Documents relating to the “deliberative process” will be released unless their publication can be shown to be contrary to the public interest. And the power of secretaries general to refuse access will be limited. There are, however, causes for concern. Too many get-out clauses are available in the Bill that may allow ministers and public servants withhold sensitive or damaging information. A more creative approach, involving information technology, should have been adopted. Departmental paper trails and government memorandums are very useful but, in this digital age, why are formal discussions not recorded, as happens in the United States and elsewhere? The public and historians should be told what goes on.