Saturday 26 November 2011

PerishTheThought: the public interest 1

Sir Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary, Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office and Head of the home civil service, gave evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee on 23 November 2011. No transcript available yet but, according to the Guardian:
The Freedom of Information act is a mistake, and is having a negative effect on governing, Britain's top civil servant said. Sir Gus O'Donnell told the Commons public administration select committee that it had stymied full and frank discussion of options by ministers and others in government. The 2001 act gives members of the public and journalists the right to ask for publication of official documents.

"The problem is, virtually everything [in such documents] is subject to a public interest test. If asked to give advice, I'd say I can't guarantee they can say without fear or favour if they disagree with something, and that information will remain private. Because there could be an FoI request.

"It's having a very negative impact on the freedom of policy discussions."
What possible interest could we the public have in how the unelected Sir Gus, or his unaccountable office, spends £710 billion of our money for us this year?

Whitehall often claim, as here in front of the Public Administration Select Committee, that they couldn't do their job properly if they had to operate in the open. They couldn't serve the public interest.

Whitehall do not operate in the open at the moment. Their deliberations go largely unreported. And yet, despite the putative benefit of this secrecy, when their performance is reported, mostly by the National Audit Office, after the event, all too often, it transpires that Whitehall aren't doing their job properly.

It transpires that, too often, Whitehall has become an irresponsible and unbusinesslike and undignified machine for transferring public money to a small group of management consultants, contractors and PFI financiers, against the public interest.

Pace Sir Gus, secrecy is not working. Sir Gus is wrong. The smug technocrat's insider view that Whitehall is currently doing a good job is untenable, mendacious, self-deception. Looking in from the outside, Whitehall seems regularly to be guilty of misfeasance in public office.

Openness might be part of the answer. Openness might help Whitehall to do its job properly. Openness might be in the public interest.


SDG said...

I haven't read the 2001 FoI act [the sands of time and all that], but apart from the public interest test which I guess can be invoked to block any request there also seems to be an upper limit of £600 to research any individual request [the hourly rate of a lawyer, say]. If a request is estimated to exceed that limit it will not be undertaken at all. See current edition of Private Eye [25th November - 8th December 2011] and the article "War Graves. Booty trawl".

David Moss said...

Part II of the Act is a cracker. I'm told. I sat down to read it but, same sands of time as yours, fell asleep and never went back to it.

But I can tell you that it's 16 pages long and comprises 24 sections, each one defining a class of exemptions. Exemptions from disclosure. The Act is a machine for generating exemptions whenever Whitehall needs them to stop hoi polloi from finding out how they spend our money.

I've had a freedom of information request in with the Home Office since 6 January 2010. It feels like a member of the family now, and I'm thinking of making it a little birthday cake at Epiphany.

Once you've got the Whitehall department concerned to accept your request, unlike the poor chap in Private Eye, there are no £600 limits.

The review process within the Home Office for my request #13728 took six months and must have occupied some of the best brains in Europe for hours at God knows what cost.

Then there was the Information Commissioner's Office investigation into the Home Office's review, which took eight months. The Commissioner's Decision FS50320566 agreed with the Home Office – exempt.

That took the Commissioner's brain, the Home Office's brain, IBM's brain, Sagem Sécurité's brain and the brains of a number of sub-contractors. I can't tell you what that number is. Public interest.

So then we're into the appeals process, nine months so far, involving all the actors above + the Treasury Solicitors + the Information Rights Tribunal (First Tier).

There was a hearing of the appeal, EA/2011/0081, on 21 September 2011, but no decision, then the panel met to discuss the appeal again, now they've asked for a further submission from the Home Office with a view to finalising their preliminary opinion.

I shall write a saga about this case one day. The chances of SDG staying awake throughout are limited, I realise. The Home Office don't like disclosing information. You know that before the saga starts. But there is one discovery worth waiting for, probably somewhere around episode #42.

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