Experience suggests that when a government announces a review of the Freedom of Information (FoI) law, the public should be on guard. It's not that every change to the Act has been regressive – in 2014 then minister for public expenditure Brendan Howlin undid restrictions introduced by a Fianna Fáil-led administration a decade earlier – but a law that many public servants view as a nuisance will always be vulnerable.
Documents obtained (via FoI) by the advocacy group Right to Know showed the heavy involvement of the civil service in shaping the restrictions introduced in 2003.
Announcing the latest review, Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath noted that FoI was "central to transparency and ensuring the public has confidence in the administration of the State". A reason he cited for the review was that technology had changed the ways individuals and public bodies interacted with each other, presenting a "challenge" to the system. If he means that it must become easier to access material exchanged via new technologies, he is absolutely right. Many will worry, however, that influential voices within the system will see this as an opportunity to make such material more inaccessible. Just last month Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney openly acknowledged that he routinely deletes his text exchanges with colleagues – correspondence that comes under the FoI Act.
McGrath also announced a project to estimate the cost of FoI to the exchequer. Is he just curious? Or will this be the first step towards reducing that cost, perhaps by reimposing upfront fees?
There are good reasons to review FoI. Technology is outpacing it. A number of Supreme Court rulings since 2014 have implications for its operation. Too many organisations remain outside it. But until McGrath states clearly that there will be no rolling back on the fundamental features of the law, including on fees and scope, many will quite reasonably be concerned that the system is seeking to blunt one of the key tools available to members of the public to see and understand how their government works.