House of Commons Public Administration Committee
Published in HC Public Administration Committee (1998), "Your Right to Know", etc.,
Third Report of Session 199798, HC 398II (Stationery Office, London)
Government's proposals for a Freedom of Information Act
"The mechanics of dissemination should be part of
the principle of any Freedom of Information Act" (1).
(J A G Griffith, Emeritus Professor of Public Law, L.S.E)
Freedom of Information legislation is a relatively modern concept and so experience of the longer term impact is still limited. But one emerging lesson is that legislation should always incorporate explicit provision for the dissemination of free information. The obscure workings of British constitutionality make this provision especially important. Omission will limit the legislation's great promise for encouraging informed public participation in government. And omission will continue to widen the gap between the information rich and information poor.
I therefore recommend..
My comments expand on these three proposals. I also recommend an urgent official interdepartmental review so that Ministers can form a summary view of (a) the minimum core area of free information that should be available and (b) arrangements for co-ordinating the dissemination of this material. This is an advisable step prior to the publication of the FOI Bill's Financial and Explanatory Memorandum. It should help to ensure that basic arrangements for dissemination of free information are established as a principle at the Bill's Second Reading.
The Proposals of the White Paper
1. The White Paper is fertile ground. There is a general hope that government itself will take a proactive role (para 7.6) and there is an acknowledgement that the public will need "user-friendly guides" and that "effective training of officials" must follow (para 7.4). "Active disclosure" is specifically emphasised (para 2.17) and there is a promise that the Act will impose duties to make certain information available, broadly on the lines of the last Administration's 1994 "Code of Practice on Access to Government Information" (para 2.18).
2. So far so good. But these very generalised aspirations leave all matters of content, timing and dissemination to separate Whitehall departments, to non-Ministerial departments, executive agencies and the myriad of public agencies, quangos and local authorities. Without decrying the many separate "open government" forays already made, including the "Citizen's Charter", an unco-ordinated approach will increasingly resemble a "tower of Babel" an exceedingly fragmented picture unable to provide a reasonably complete view of public provision in any one area of the country, or a holistic grasp of the overall process of government.
Defining the Core Area of Free Information
3. The legislation will firstly "empower people" by granting right of access and, secondly, make "certain information available as a matter of course" (para 2.5). The bulk and whole emphasis of the White Paper is about granting right of access. Of course this is vital. But my concern is with the duty of making information available. This should be a coherent and co-ordinated interdepartmental effort explaining the whole of the Government's programme. It should be available free and stimulate "user-friendly" scrutiny, participation and feedback.
4. This is the dynamic, modern and positive way to approach "duties to publish information". It will revolutionise the "obligation" to "release operational information about how public services are run, how much they cost, targets set, expected standards and results" (para 2.18).
5. The task is to bulwark democratic debate while extending it to all levels of the community. Here Britain faces a special need and a more complex challenge than other countries. We are a unitary state with no written constitution, without formal separation of powers and without guaranteed local powers or local institutions. Parliament's control over spending remains a constitutional myth, our Upper House is an unelected quango and our local democracy now governs only a fraction of local services. Public service is radically unco-ordinated at all levels.
6. The system is obscure. It's Euro boundaries are blurred. The public needs a clearer map.
7. As one example of this obscurity, Britain is the only European State that provides no free leaflets, brochures or posters to explain the overall workings of government. Of course there are academic volumes and the Stationery Office markets an Official Handbook at £32. But other countries typically provide free pocket handbooks, in several languages, and simplified diagrams or flow charts explaining their governmental and budgetary process. We do not (2).
It follows that the core area of free information must cover sufficient ground to reveal the overall process of government and its impact on localities. We must avoid a fortuitous collection of ad hoc information initiatives from bits of the public sector.
8. The Home Office has made a start in the field of community development. Ministers have begun to consider (with the Community Development Foundation, the Library Association and others) what the core area of free information ought to be (3). This work parallels research by a joint CDF/IBM working party on "the impact of new information technology on local communities and the potential for greater social inclusion" (4).
9. Consequently local community networks, resource centres and local community-based IT projects throughout the country have already been surveyed and consulted. This is immensely valuable work. But the effort has been handicapped in two ways...
10. All these community developments need to find their place within a national framework; a national information system. And that can only happen when we have pushed out a co-ordinated system of free material explaining what Government is doing, and why, and how it is getting on. I return to this in the final section.
Social Exclusion & Information Poverty
11. Many levels of Britain now feel excluded from the political process. Recently the Industry and Parliamentary Trust launched a programme to try to bridge the wide gap of understanding that now exists between business people and political life. In France we find no similar lack of communication between commercial and political elites. At yet another level, university students in other European states show a good general understanding of government in alarming contrast to our own students.
12. The Citizenship Foundation is one of a number of worthy attempts to interest young people. It makes all the right moves but one suspects it is sometimes aware of a "Catch 22": the more that is known the less the interest. Professor Bernard Crick's recent "Advisory Group on Education for Citizenship" is another recent initiative speaking to the need to improve learning about citizenship, inside (and outside?) the formal curricula. Such initiatives cry out for the sort of dynamic new information systems that young people relish interactive systems that open up the actual political process in a clear and intelligible way.
13. Recently the Lord Chancellor summed up the present state of affairs, "The legislative process is a mystery and (the) only idea of the work of Parliament is bad tempered shouting during Prime Minister's questions" (5). And as a Demos Report put it, "For many young people politics has become something of a dirty word" (6). Everywhere there is alienation.
14. But it is in areas of social deprivation that information poverty and disenchantment are at their most extreme. Although people in these areas may depend on the full range of government services at every turn, there is little interest in a state apparatus that, paradoxically, seems too remote to have relevance to them. The only face of authority is a massive collection of fragmented initiatives and agencies. Just where reliable accountability and community are most needed nobody has a clear picture of what is going on.
15. The Government's "Social Exclusion Unit" and the new array of Education, Employment and Health Action Zones may yet deliver a more "holistic" response in such areas. If so they and their clients will still need to plug in to a "holistic" information base, a national system that can cross bureaucratic and territorial boundaries and plant experiment and innovation where it really belongs, in mainstream government. Because these people in the "inner city" are not some feckless lot that have chosen social exclusion. They are excluded.
16.They are excluded because among all human deprivations information poverty is the most subtle but also the most crippling. Information poverty is social exclusion. It is the ultimate barrier to betterment. At this level the "Freedom of Information" Act is no magical gateway to democratic choice. On the contrary it best helps those already in the know the already powerful who have access to the "usual channels", the expertise, the computing power and the resources. Only the most deliberate and proactive dissemination of free information can possibly redress this imbalance an imbalance that will otherwise divide the nation.
Online Britain: a co-ordinated public sector system
17. How can this be done? Modern technology triggered the new question marks about the state and now the Government's use of information technology has a key role in finding the answers and in Tony Blair's words "deepening the trust between government and the governed". The ease with which average citizens should soon be able to participate via a public sector online system is a revolutionary opportunity. But first two important questions...
18. The White Paper improves on the earlier 1992 "Right to Information Bill" by including the duty to cover operational information. But officials still fight shy of a co-ordinated approach across Whitehall and, since this is crucial for future networking, one should perhaps heed a general warning from David Walker. "The problem with the networks that could link such official bodies is not technical. It is not even financial. It belongs to a way of seeing government through the eyes of officials and civil servants rather then those of the citizen" (7).
19. There is concern, too, that the previous Administration's interest in seeking a market return on official "tradeable" data continued by the Government (para 2.35) led to contracts with commercial information providers in matters where public bodies could be said to have a duty to publish. This became a somewhat murky area and the Labour shadow minister had promised a review. I conclude, as above, that there is a prior obligation to clarify all areas of public concern where the public has the right to free access to information (para 2.28 to 2.38).
20. The most urgent requirement is a clear concept of how that whole body of publicly-accessible free information can be accessed to bulwark public participation, reduce cynicism and encourage informed interest in the political process. We must have a model in our mind of one simple brochure of the overall process (paragraph 7 above) guiding annual online coverage of all budgetary, legislative and operational information from each Queen's Speech onwards. We should envisage any citizen accessing any part of that system using state-of-the-art technology. I would be glad of any opportunity to expand on this.
21. Finally, some campaigners have expressed reservations about systems so dedicated to coverage of the Government's programme, objecting that it provides the Administration with unacceptable opportunities for manipulation of public opinion. But there is no other starting point: Government actual government is our topic. Fortunately the constitutional package includes a pledge to set up an independent National Statistical Service and although "independence" is not explicitly defined in the Green Paper (8). I hope a Government so dedicated to decentralisation may devolve that function to Parliament as originally intended.
Des McConaghy, 27 February 1998,
(1) correspondence; J A G Griffith, 10.02. 96.
(2) I surveyed SO, ONS, HC, cf. Hansard Society; "It needs to be done"; Professor Phillip Norton, "There is a gap"!
(3) correspondence; Minister of State, Home Office, 18.08.97.
(4) for example; "The Net Result: Social Inclusion in the Information Society"; Report of the National Working Party on Social Inclusion; IBM/CDF, IBM 1997.
(5) Lord Irvine. Speech to the Citizenship Foundation, Law Society; 27.01.98.
(6) Helen Wilkinson and Geoff Mulgan. "Freedom's Children", Demos 1995.
(7) David Walker. "A Vision of Whitehall on the Net"; Independent 19.08.97.
(8) Treasury. "A Matter of Trust" (Consultation Paper on Independent Statistical Service); Stationery Office, February 1998.
Contact to Des McConaghy:
5 Glenluce Road, Liverpool L19 9BX
return to main page