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« Heartland docs leaked | Main | Official sc(k)eptics on AGW »
Tuesday
Feb142012

Public should be charged to see their own papers

That, apparently, is the hope of senior civil servants. A report in the Telegraph says that they are annoyed with the Freedom of Information Act:

Officials are said to be frustrated at spending hours researching the answers to requests for disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act.

Civil servants believe that the laws, which were introduced to make government more open, could have had the opposite effect by making officials less willing to keep written records which could become public.

This is thoroughly dishonest by the mandarins. If the cost of an FOI request exceeds a few hours then it is already possible to charge. In my experience, the bulk of civil servants' time is spent trying to work out how not to comply with their legal obligations rather than trying to locate the information.

And what about the second bit? Civil servants refuse to write things down because anything they do might be disclosed by FOI? Who are these civil servants who are refusing to write things down? And why haven't they been sacked for trying to circumvent the law?

Dishonest mandarins - who would have thought it?

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Reader Comments (51)

Is there a type here?
the bulk of civil servants' time is spent trying to work out how to comply
should be:
the bulk of civil servants' time is spent trying to work out how not to comply

Feb 14, 2012 at 9:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

The bulk of civil servants' time is usually spent devising ways to avoid releasing information.

This attitude is precisely why FOI legislation was drafted and passed. Their petulant attitude of 'we might not write it down' needs to be hammered out of them by aggressive prosecution. It is called 'making an example' and has many precedents.

Feb 14, 2012 at 9:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterGixxerboy

I took it to mean that they were trying to comply with their minimum legal obligations, or, as a former council officer assures me he was told by a civil servant, "every assistance short of actual help".

Feb 14, 2012 at 9:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

I feel for the Civil Service. The whole point of their existence is to be as economical as possible with the truth, either to the general public who pay their wages or to their political masters who get in the way of governance by bureaucratic decree. I'm eternally surprised that the FoI Act even made it through the legislative process.

Feb 14, 2012 at 9:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterGrumpy Old Man

As Tim Worstall pointed out in his blog, we already pay for this stuff. The payment is called Tax.

Feb 14, 2012 at 9:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterEddy

There is a very fine line to be trodden here.
There has to be a point in the process prior to which discussions between civil servants and ministers — or within any publicly accountable group trying to reach a decision — is not subject to public scrutiny. Otherwise no decision will ever be reached.
As an analogy there was always one instance where it was acceptable for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to mislead the Commons and that was on the question of whether or not a devaluation of the currency was in prospect (in the days before floating exchange rates). The reason should be self-evident.
As I have argued before, if every off-the-wall idea that is floated in private meetings among civil servants or between civil servants and ministers has to be written down and made available on request to anyone who asks then either the Guardian or the Mail (depending on which party is in power — or possibly regardless!) is going to have a field day lambasting government for something that never was and never would be government policy.
And that is certainly not what FoI was intended to do. I don't know how and where exactly to draw this line but it needs to be drawn otherwise any possibility of good governance flies out of the window.

Feb 14, 2012 at 9:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

And so the campaign against FOI gathers pace.

With typical bureaucratic sophistry "We don't want FOI" becomes "FOI simply isn't working".

Nice.

Feb 14, 2012 at 9:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-record

I've just passed several amusing minutes reading the 'Confirm or Deny' website and if that is what we are using the Freedom of Information Act to find out then it is hardly surprising that civil servants are reluctant to waste their time.
Ministers reading that site would also be inclined to the view that there are better things to do with tax revenue than find out that Southanpton Council put trips to the London Dungeon on its credit cards (the reason why might have been of more use!) or the rules for the University Boat Race (which actually turns out to be nothing of the sort: the "rules" as such are widely known and have been for decades).
Then there is the list of every street in the UK and the location of every post box with its collection times. And there are still 300+ to go.
Give me strength!
Which is not to suggest that I am not a supporter of Freedom of Information. Let's just not shoot ourselves in the foot, eh?

Feb 14, 2012 at 10:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

It's perfectly reasonable to charge for the time it takes to respond to a request, the amount should not be punitive but it should be enough to put off frivolous requests. This might be a difficult concept for leisured people to grasp, but those of us that work for a living understand time has a value which exceeds money, particularly unpaid overtime.

Your tax pays for nothing, tax is a system of manipulation and control.

Feb 14, 2012 at 10:34 AM | Unregistered Commentermrjohn

This reminds me of the old arguments in the USA that stated that we needed to pay the Police more so that they will be less susceptible to bribery.

Feb 14, 2012 at 10:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterSalamano

The wonderful Perpetual Civil Service Self Balancing Communication Contraption... always in equilibrium.

Feb 14, 2012 at 10:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterJiminy Cricket

Salamano
A perfectly logical argument. Fair pay gets you a fair police force; unfair pay leads to policing for those with the deepest pockets who are often (inevitably) those who are less than scrupulous in their dealings.
Look at the probity of the police in most of those countries where corrupt dictators have creamed off the cash.
Oh, and when you go there make sure there is a bottle of decent whisky in your luggage for the customs officer to confiscate as "contraband"!

Feb 14, 2012 at 10:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

To paraphrase an old Vietnam War saying;

"It became necessary to destroy the information in order to save it."

Feb 14, 2012 at 11:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterMac

Sir Humphrey Appleton at his finest!. The Civil Service never change.

Feb 14, 2012 at 11:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterPete H

Mike Jackson is right. As a former public servant, I have seen my fair share of nutty FOI requests (every reference to my name ever held by the Commonwealth Government comes to mind). He is also right that if we want decent policy, people have to be able to float a range of ideas (in an accountable way, like getting costings) without them becoming cannon fodder for interest groups. It may seem simple for a person on the outside with one particular issue of interest to demand that people spend hundreds of hours dredging up every reference to their issue, but it can become a ridiculous waste of resources.

There has to be a middle path.

I might add that abuse of FOI is also a mechanism for lazy journalists to make taxpayers pay for what they should be doing. Why spend time, money and brainpower researching something when you can divert people on the public tab from doing their jobs to do a massive trawl for you, at the end of which you decide there is no story and chuck it in the bin?

Feb 14, 2012 at 11:27 AM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

I thought they could already charge a tenner?

Feb 14, 2012 at 11:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterShevva

@ Mike Jackson

Then there is the list of every street in the UK and the location of every post box with its collection times.

These requests were for information that had already been collated, at taxpayers' expense, but was sitting on government computers inaccessible to the public. It seems perfectly reasonable to request that this information be made available.

Feb 14, 2012 at 12:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterJudge

One of the three questions, on which the Justice Select Committee asked for submissions, was

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act?

I have no doubt whatsoever that being FREE is its real strength and what makes ours the best in the world - though not the best that could be devised. The EIRs are better but not universal or perfect.

I could be persuaded that a modest charge or better still an allowance system to limit an individuals requests could be justified if and only if publication schemes were made mandatory and well policed. The problem at the moment is that it is easy and costless for public authorities to come up with inventive ways of refusing or delaying disclosure.

Feb 14, 2012 at 12:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Holland

Long ago I had to contrive a policy for my academic department on our response to the Data Protection Act. I recommended destruction of most of our records, since we could never have realistically checked through them for references to, for example, former student A, while carefully editing whatever was handed over to A to remove references to former students B, C,... We didn't have the manpower, or we would have had to divert manpower from the jobs we were paid to do, namely teaching, examining and researching.

Destruction, before the relevant deadline, was the rational course. A few bits of the records might conceivably have been of interest to future historians: I recommended that those be archived in the university library where they would not be available for routine management purposes.

One lesson, of course, was that we had kept records on the off-chance that they might be useful one day, but that decades of experience showed they were never consulted. So in the bin they were to go.

Feb 14, 2012 at 12:35 PM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

The public evidence submissions are in a 13 Mb file here:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmjust/writev/foi/foi.pdf

Mine is no 5

Feb 14, 2012 at 12:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Holland

@dearime

'One lesson, of course, was that we had kept records on the off-chance that they might be useful one day, but that decades of experience showed they were never consulted. So in the bin they were to go'

That's my strategy for paperwork. Attack it only once every calendar month. Once dealt with, stick it in a folder with the oldest at the back. If you ever use it again, bring it to the front. Chuck out and shred anything that's been unused for two years.

I have a nice clean study and an uncluttered mind.

My late father kept everything, but as his mental acuity slowly declined, the sheer amount of stuff he had became a source of considerable worry to him.. But by then he couldn't really make sensible decisions about what to keep and what to chuck. Sad..

Feb 14, 2012 at 1:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

One FOI request would show exactly how much time Civil Servants spend working and how much time they spend surfing the web?

Feb 14, 2012 at 1:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterStacey

Discovery is another access to your paperwork. if someone might be wronged by you or your organization sufficiently to provoke an action against you, you may find your records subpoenaed for the use of the other party. Construction is such an endeavor.

We kept structural and other calculations, as well as notes of client meetings and review drawings containing changes and signatures against the occasional reaction to the building that "this is not what we wanted."

I collected photographs of unusual construction elements in our own projects where either the drawings had been unclear, the field had misapplied the laws of physics, or something that generally worked everywhere else, didn't work here, etc. Some of these were howlers and were removed or replaced prior to project completion.

We had an audit within the company when we started to run out of storage space. Our attorney helped with the selection of what to trash. He had a fit over two things, one of which was my photo libary and the other the "funny CV collection." Anyone who has hired over many years will understand what could be in a funny CV collection.

We got rid of both. I really wish I'd taken the photos home with me.

Feb 14, 2012 at 1:37 PM | Unregistered Commenterj ferguson

Judge
I disagree and seriously believe that your argument is fallacious.
That information has been accumulated using taxpayers' money (always the excuse for getting your hands on something for nothing) is not necessarily a good reason for spending more taxpayers' money pulling it together in a form that can be transmitted while at the same time checking to ensure that no information is included which ought not to be. See dearieme's reply above.
Even if there is somewhere a complete list of every street in the UK (which I doubt, though it is possible), demanding that government provide this is not "freedom of information", it's playing silly buggers. I fully accept the argument that (for example) there is no reason why what biscuits they serve with coffee at the MoD needs to be a state secret. That does not necessarily mean that we should have the right to demand that information just because we happen to feel like knowing.
In the case of CRU — which is what sparked of all this interest in FoI — the flood of 'pestiferous' FoI requests which they received was a direct result of their playing silly buggers and doing their best to hide information which was of legitimate public interest and was the subject of a legal request to which they were legally bound to reply.
But we do ourselves no favours by making fatuous requests for irrelevant factoids more suited to the next pub quiz.
You want some more examples?
• The results of the latest well being survey of headteachers on the Isle of Wight
• The House of Commons release of the style guidelines for preparing Select Committee reports
• Copies of documentation relating to the disclaimer of peerages
This last is especially fascinating. There have been 18 disclaimed since the Act was introduced in 1963 but these days with hereditary peers no longer having an automatic right to sit in the Lords and in fact the same rights as commoners to sit in the Commons, who cares?
If we don't want to lose rights, whether to information or anything else, the first principle to observe is not to abuse those rights. There are always things that government doesn't want you to know — it's in the nature of government. Providing them with any excuse to limit the distribution of information is crass.

Feb 14, 2012 at 2:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

Other than where national and in some cases commercial security is concerned, why not publish all policy related documentation incuding proposals, raw and processed data, code, meeting minutes, interim and final reports directly on line for public access? If it is subject to FOIA then it should already be available. The number of FOIA requests should drop like a brick and confidence in government go up like a rocket. We get to see the mistakes made and their correction, where a policy is cost effective, 'what and why' we're getting for our money and loads of other stuff that anoraks would relish.

Am I being a little naive here?

Feb 14, 2012 at 2:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterDusty

I don't know how and where exactly to draw this line but it needs to be drawn otherwise any possibility of good governance flies out of the window.

Unfortunately, that line is precisely where public officials play their games, no matter where you place it, before foisting their plans upon an unsuspecting public. Back door deals are notoriously put into place as policy without any mention of the true impetus behind the deal.

The ability of the government to deceive the public from which it draws its salary can never be underestimated. If every government official ever elected or hired was truly altruistic in his goals to better society, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, such positions of control attract those that desire such control, along with the benefits that come with it, including wealth.

Mark

Feb 14, 2012 at 2:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterMark T

You're right enough but is that not a counsel of despair. There are always ways if ensuring that public servants act in the best interests of the public.It may not be easy but then a lot if things that are wortrh doing aren't.
You appear to be saying that there is nothing we can do improve governance in the UK. I hope you're wrong.

Feb 14, 2012 at 3:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

@Mike Jackson

Mike, I can see why you're concerned about how easy it is for people to waste their time!

The 'street name' reply says:

I confirm that Ordnance Survey does hold the information you have
requested.

Ordnance Survey has used OS MasterMap(R) Integrated Transport Network(TM)
(ITN) to extract all of the road names Ordnance Survey holds and the road
names have been placed in a text file - being your preferred format.
Integrated Transport Network(TM) is a digital network map of Great
Britain's road infrastructure and an update for Integrated Transport
Network(TM) is published every 6 weeks - keeping the product highly
current and complete.

So, it looks like they did a cut and paste job. It's not at all obvious to me that this is a flippant request, much less an "abuse of rights". There are, in any case, already safeguards in the legislation to ensure flippant or abusive requests can be rejected.

People here are mainly interested in climate change, but there are all kinds of legitimate requests for information, some of which might sound strange to people who are not familiar with the subject. Assuming people are abusing their FOI rights, especially when, as in the cases you cite, the information has been promptly provided, seems a bit presumptuous.

Of course, I agree there is a line to be drawn between legitimate requests and time wasting. Unfortunately, it's the bureaucrats who are looking to move the goalposts, using the excuse of trivial requests, and I don't believe it is in the public interest to take their word for it.

Feb 14, 2012 at 4:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterJudge

Yes, I had forgotten that OS were likely to hold that sort of information, as a by-product of their mapping activities.
And since you do have it, why not keep it?
This request was one of 626 submitted by a Steve Elibank most (though admittedly not all) of which are equally pointless.
When I referred earlier to shooting oneself in the foot or playing silly buggers it was nerds like this that I was referring to.The FoIA was not brought into law so that people like him could extend their 15 minutes of rather dubious fame beyond reasonable limits and if we end up with a restrictive Act or a repeal of the legislation, it will be in no small measure due to the activities of people like him.
As far as I can see from the correspondence his only reason for using the FoIA to get the street name information was

The material I am requesting is not included in your OpenData,
since your gazzette (sic) datasets exclude some streets for some reason.
A better example of a frivolous request I cannot imagine.

Feb 14, 2012 at 4:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

They, the public servants, do have a point actually. We should pay for the information. The problem is, that is, their problem is, that we are paying in advance. Tax it is called.

Feb 14, 2012 at 5:30 PM | Unregistered Commenteralex

It is a sad fact that many civil servants are just bone idle. I remember listening to a programme about training civil servants, who faced being made redundant because of the 'cuts' (I doubt they HAVE been sacked but that's as may be), what work was like in the private sector and how to prepare for it. It was very revealing. They were warned that they would need to arrive at work on time; not leave early; not have holidays or days off when they chose... punters were interviewed expressing concern about how they would cope with all this. I doubt they needed to worry, it was fairly clear that they were virtually unemployable.

Feb 14, 2012 at 5:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhilip Foster

judge said:

(MJ) Then there is the list of every street in the UK and the location of every post box with its collection times.

------------------------

These requests were for information that had already been collated, at taxpayers' expense, but was sitting on government computers inaccessible to the public. It seems perfectly reasonable to request that this information be made available.

--------------------------

judge, the point you miss is that the information requested under FOI is almost never sitting there on computers waiting to be spat out by pressing a key. On the contrary, it is often scattered, unconnected and sometimes non-existent.

People who believe in Government conspiracies have no idea how vast and incompetent Government record keeping is. It is certainly fair enough for people to have a right to maximum access to the paper trail where it affects them personally - and as far as I know that is the source of the majority of FOI requests. If you are denied a pension because 'the system' says you don't exist or are 15 years old, of course it is reasonable for FOI to be free and untrammeled.

But when we get into the policy area, it is a different ball game. Perhaps it would be useful to divide FOI requests into categories, for a start.

Suggesting that anyone has the right to tie up unlimited public resources at no personal cost under the guise of FOI is ludicrous. What is being requested is collation, editing and preparation of information for unspecified purposes at public expense. Taxpayers deserve better than an unlimited 'right to know' for these expensive and time-consuming services.

I am a big supporter of David Holland et al, but fear that the desire for the perfect may extinguish the good in this debate.

Feb 14, 2012 at 6:29 PM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

Perhaps if these Civil Servants were made redundant we might save money and an FOI

Feb 14, 2012 at 7:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterMaxwellsDemon

Strange how very difficult everything seems to be for british civil servants. In Sweden FOI ("Offentlighetsprincipen") has existed for more than sixty years, and nobody has noticed any major problems with it.

Feb 14, 2012 at 7:30 PM | Unregistered Commentertty

Personally, I support Mike Jackson's views on this topic. There has to be proportionality on this issue, the current political administration came to power on manifestos that included major cuts in public spending. It is unrealistic to expect those remaining in Civil/Public Service to continue providing the same service that they are employed to do and provide the same level of/or increasing responses to FOI requests as well - particularly when it comes to trivia.

Feb 14, 2012 at 8:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterSalopian

We could try openness as a default position.
In the example I quoted above, was there any need for OS to exclude certain street names from its on-line database?
Since in France (at least where I am) my local paper will give me full details of all contracts awarded by my local commune for roadworks, new building, land sales, etc., is there any reason why such information is not publicly available automatically in the UK? If these things aren't "commercially sensitive" in France then it would imply that "commercial sensitivity" is just an excuse either for "we just don't see why we should tell you" or "we've got something to hide".
Was there any particular reason why Elibank had to submit his other 625 requests rather than the information being available on the relevant organisations' web sites? Was there any reason why a simple request for the information would have been turned down, making an FoI request necessary?
Why do people in authority insist on making life difficult for themselves as well as us?

Feb 14, 2012 at 8:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

@tty
Maybe Sweden does not have the culture of secrecy that the UK Govt has.so that the general principle of FOI is more mainsteam and therefore less high profile.

I side with Mike Jackson as regards FOI needing to be proportional. But how you assess which requests have merit and which don't is tricky. You can hardly leave it to Sir Humphrey to decide. Any "independent" committee would comprise the great and the good, rather like remuneration committees. That list of FOI requests is embarrassing ammunition for folk set on restricting FOI.

Feb 14, 2012 at 8:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterArgusfreak

Salopian,

So why not save money by removing the right to appeal, say, against parking tickets or motoring offences that have a penalty of less than, say, £200? Most people are guilty as charged. I could think of other ways of saving money, but in the end certain things define our democracy and as I began my submission to the Justice Committee - when I was just 3 years old the members of the United Nations agreed a Resolution that began

Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.
United Nations Resolution 59, 1946

Feb 14, 2012 at 8:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Holland

David Holland
Thanks for the reminder.
Bears out what I said above — why the hell after all this time do we need a Freedom of Information Act?
If we support the UN why is openness not our default position? And a committee of "real" people can be empanelled to adjudicate where government argues that a particular piece of information should be withheld.
Hardly rocket science, one would have thought!

Feb 14, 2012 at 8:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

David, you’re usually so right.
The UN are hypocrites, they say what is good and wholesome, and practice the opposite.

Appeals for small fines, are in place because appeals do often get upheld; ergo, there is a need for them. It might be a small fine for you, but there are many among the community to which, small money is all they have.

It might not happen in the UK too much, but here the authorities do sometimes have mercy on people, therefor the appeal works.

Feb 14, 2012 at 9:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterGreg Cavanagh

Personally I wouldn't have a problem if I was charged for a FoI request.

In common law the exchange of moneys would be deemed a contract.

If the state or its civil servants mislead or lie then it would Prima facie malfeasance in public office and would lead to Prima facie tort

Prima facie tort is a facial tort, that is a rebuttable determination of the existence of a legal duty, breach of that duty, and damages which flow therefrom due to proximate and legal causation.

A prima facie tort consists of the following:

1) The existence of a legally recognised duty of the defendant to the plaintiff.

2) A breach of that duty by the plaintiff, and

3) Proximate and legal Causation

Feb 14, 2012 at 9:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnoneumouse

Mike Re: "Why do people in authority insist on making life difficult for themselves as well as us?"

Obstructing FOI doesn't make it difficult for them - they get to carry on inadequate practice unchallenged. Only when those who disregard the FOI laws start getting fired and/or facing legal redress will they feel any difficulty.

Feb 14, 2012 at 10:06 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

The Telegraph article is little more than a bit of backscratching by Tim Ross - and laden with material untruths.

The processor of an FoI request can request payment at an hourly rate that can be several times the minimum wage. We paid just on £1000 - hilariously one of the first documents in the resulting bundle was an email to all concerned essentially saying "OMG! - they've paid the money!".... and what appeared to be a suggestion to communicate by Blackberry... The amount charged can be a true reflection of the cost.

Now, when civil servants dissemble, mislead, lie, cheat and break The Law, cause distress and crippling financial loss to innocent third parties there is a partial avenue towards redress.

It irritates hugely when people wheel out the daft questions asked (that could have been charged for ...) and ignore utterly the serious ones that expose diverse and criminal misconduct on a truly epic scale fuelled by public funds.

The accountability of public servants is what's at stake here. If they behave themselves and do their jobs properly then they have little to worry about - if they choose the opposite - there must be a means to find out and consequences / sanction must ensue.

For our temerity in honestly and reasonably requesting FoI from The Environment Agency we suffered a year of deliberate delays, dissembling, misdirection, intransigence, incomplete/wrong documents etc., etc. - a sorry procession of deceit. On the third FoI iteration, at appeal - somebody from outside the group concerned provided all the documents plus a pivotal one that had been deemed "lost" - within 2 weeks of being tasked....

The Information Commissioner's Report on our case was damning and one notch below prosecution - but even with a prosecution what's the result? - fine The Environment Agency ? that's like fining yourself.... The individual perpetrators of wrongdoing must be held to account like ordinary citizens and not the unaccountable elite that many clearly feel themselves to be.

However, there is Kryptonite available which has up to now gone unnoticed gathering dust on the shelves and hard drives of HMG... Once it's brought out of it's lead lined box, they'll forget all about FoI - I guarantee it.

Feb 14, 2012 at 10:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterTom O

Here is a revealing FOI request result on UK climate research funding

http://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/uk-universities-receive-72-million-p-a-for-climate-research/#comment-479

Feb 14, 2012 at 10:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

I agree with Mike Jackson about the way that some political systems have made life hard for themselves and the rest of us. In Australia, we inherited the British system where the default position is secrecy. In contrast, in the US, for example, the default position is open-ness.

Having a default position of transparency does not preclude confidential discussion of policy options or frank advice to government. Exclusions can be made, but they are transparent. What we are stuck with is a system where the exclusions are in the realm of what can be revealed.

It is a revelation to study political processes in the US, where the meetings and decisions of statutory authorities or 'quangos' are on the public record. Government records are presumed to be available, unless a (transparent) reason for secrecy is spelled out. Secrecy is always able to be appealed under the First Amendment. It is not a perfect system, but is dramatically different from that which we are used to and seems a much better fit to the modern world.

I hasten to add that I am not advocating wholesale adoption of the US political system - at all. But when it comes to transparency and accountability, there is much to admire and learn from.

Feb 14, 2012 at 10:55 PM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

You appear to be saying that there is nothing we can do improve governance in the UK. I hope you're wrong.

Nope, I'm saying that the only way to minimize the level of corruption is to have a 100% open process. Sorry if that causes them to work harder, maybe it will also cause them to be more honest and work in a way that creates the need for less audit. Maybe it will also make them think before creating policy that overly complicates their paper trail, i.e., maybe it will also make them a bit more efficient, if for no other reason than to avoid the extra red tape.

The only way to really approach complete removal of corruption is to take the government out of all things related to the economy, but that will never happen (it is not really practical, either). Once there is no reason to influence government, there is no reason for businesses/individuals to even make the attempt.

I'm not in the UK, btw, but I think my thoughts can be applied to any government.

Mark

Feb 15, 2012 at 12:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterMark T

There is a simple answer to overcome the time consuming argument..

Whenever a publicly funded document is generated it should automatically be filed (in electronic form) in addition on an open data base so that any member of the public can search the data base. In that manner, the public themselves can spend the time searching to see what may or not have been generated about any matter that they may be interested in. Only documents covered by the Offiocial Secrets Act (or similar) would be exempted.

Feb 15, 2012 at 12:09 AM | Unregistered Commenterrichard verney

Richard Verney, if you mean that every document generated by every public employee should be immediately publicly available, you are simply prescribing a shutdown of government, and a lot of business as well. Drafts, discussions, comments on drafts, proposals, tender development, contract negotiations, interactions with the Minister, correspondence with constituents - the list goes on. Of course, the Official Secrets Act (and the Crimes Act in Australia) means that you can't disclose anything at all without permission.

Back to the drawing board, Richard.

Feb 15, 2012 at 1:51 AM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

Richard Verney, if you mean that every document generated by every public employee should be immediately publicly available, you are simply prescribing a shutdown of government, and a lot of business as well. Drafts, discussions, comments on drafts, proposals, tender development, contract negotiations, interactions with the Minister, correspondence with constituents - the list goes on. Of course, the Official Secrets Act (and the Crimes Act in Australia) means that you can't disclose anything at all without permission.

Back to the drawing board, Richard.

Feb 15, 2012 at 1:51 AM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

Mike Jackson wrote:

There has to be a point in the process prior to which discussions between civil servants and ministers — or within any publicly accountable group trying to reach a decision — is not subject to public scrutiny. Otherwise no decision will ever be reached.

That would be a bad thing? I see it as a means to restrain civil servants and ministers into concentrating on things they might have to publicly justify at a later date. They wield a great deal of power and must do so responsibly. What is wrong with the arms of government having to explain themselves?

Another benefit is that current and future data handling really ought to start from at least a presumption that it could be requested, if not that it should be published as a matter of course.

As I have argued before, if every off-the-wall idea that is floated in private meetings among civil servants or between civil servants and ministers has to be written down and made available on request to anyone who asks then either the Guardian or the Mail (depending on which party is in power — or possibly regardless!) is going to have a field day lambasting government for something that never was and never would be government policy.

Even the most potty of suggestions is not an issue so long as the records include why it gets dismissed.

Mike Jackson wrote:

Salamano
A perfectly logical argument. Fair pay gets you a fair police force; unfair pay leads to policing for those with the deepest pockets who are often (inevitably) those who are less than scrupulous in their dealings.

In any collection of people there will be a variety of values and abilities, morals, etc. There will always be a section of the police susceptible to corruption regardless of pay (money is not the only bribe), just as there will always be a section of the police impervious to it.


johanna said:

People who believe in Government conspiracies have no idea how vast and incompetent Government record keeping is.

I see FOI as a mechanism for improving this. The requirement to provide information is imo best met by improving how information is generated, stored and catalogued, and making sure the information being made and collected is necessary rather than sucking in all manner of irrelevant data.

johanna said:

Drafts, discussions, comments on drafts, proposals, tender development, contract negotiations, interactions with the Minister, correspondence with constituents

The only one that sticks out from that lot is correspondence with constituents. If the government said tomorrow that it would be mostly transparent on the other things you really think government would come to a standstill? It would just shake out the actors who only want to do their dealings in secret. I doubt there are actually many of those it's just there is no present requirement to be transparent so they are not.

Feb 15, 2012 at 11:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterGareth

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