Friday, 25 October 2013

Government accountability and freedom of information

Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary until the end of 2011, has made waves recently by making proposals for improving the government of the UK which include vetting prospective MPs before they stand for Parliament. Amongst the responses has been an excellent one from Douglas Carswell, calling for accountability in the other direction: we the electorate, and backbench MPs, need to be able to hold civil servants and ministers to account. His piece is available at:

It is, however, difficult to hold a government to account, unless we can see what considerations ministers and civil servants have weighed, and how they have reached their decisions. Unfortunately, there is a major obstacle to that in the exemptions from disclosure of documents that are conferred by Freedom of Information Act 2000, sections 35 - Formation of government policy, etc and 36 - Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs. As a rule, we cannot get to see the policy papers that go back and forth among civil servants, and between them and ministers, and which show what evidence was considered and how decisions were reached. If the exemptions were abolished, MPs, journalists and the public could see the papers, and would have a valuable way to keep tabs on civil servants and on ministers.

The traditional argument is that if these papers had to be disclosed, that would inhibit free and frank discussion among civil servants, and between them and ministers. We should not accept this argument. Everyone would know in advance that such papers would be full of odd policy ideas that got rejected as silly, uncertainties about data (which should be disclosed anyway), queries over the value of evidence received from external consultees, and mentions of factors that might be seen either as risks of policies, or as advantages of them, depending on one's political stance. We know that the policy formation process is messy, and we would not think any the less of governments if we had confirmation of that fact. The worst consequence would be a bit of political embarrassment, and that matters far less than our ability to see whether the people we pay to run the public sector, and to formulate legislation, are doing a good job.

One might fear that there would be too much paper, through which to plough, and no good way to identify the key documents quickly. There would also be the difficulty of wording freedom of information requests so as to find out what was wanted. If such a request asks for the wrong thing, or leaves it open to the relevant department to supply very little information, the response can very easily not be what the person who made the request wanted.

These difficulties could, however, be overcome if external users had access to departmental document management systems, so they could search the stock of documents themselves. The official response to such a radical move might well be, "But then you might get access to personal data on taxpayers, or NHS patients, or litigants". But it is unlikely that this would really be a problem. It would not be difficult to tag documents as needing redaction before they could be accessed - although there would need to be severe disciplinary measures against civil servants who were found to be tagging everything, just so as to make life difficult for outsiders.

Will any of this happen? Maybe not. But if enough backbenchers from all parties wanted it to happen, they could force it on those who are in government, or who are on the Opposition front bench and hope that they will in due course be in government.