The UK government obviously isn't committed to open data if it's clamping down on FOIs

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 20, 2015
Early last week the government said it wanted open data to “go viral”. It then announced a potential clampdown on FOIs. It's not taking this seriously.

The UK's potential clampdown on Freedom of Information (FOI) requests makes a mockery of all the hard work that politicians, civil servants, the public and businesses have done in working towards creating the most effective open government in the world.

The Cabinet Office can't on one hand tell us that it wants open data to “go viral” in the public sector, whilst simultaneously putting plans in place that could allow policy making to happen in secret. The two can't go hand-in-hand and the levels of hypocrisy are astounding.

Recently appointed Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock made a speech early last week, which outlined some genuinely groundbreaking proposals about how the UK public sector could form policies by including citizens in decision making through the use of open data. He said:

But open government isn’t just about government, it’s also about people. And this leads me onto open policy making.

We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of citizen involvement. Government is still largely something that is done to people, rather than with them. The open government agenda is a chance to recast that relationship.

We still have an Encyclopaedia Britannica approach to government. Too much policy making is still done by well-intentioned people in Whitehall sitting in a room, thinking very hard about how to solve a problem. It’s expensive, cumbersome, dates quickly and the citizen is a bystander.

We need to move to a Wikipedia world. That means more collaboration on policy design, recognising that knowledge and evidence is widely dispersed throughout society not locked away in Whitehall.

Matt Hancock
Hancock - is he committed to being open or not?

The message is clear: Whitehall needs to step away from hierarchical decision making, where a few at the top enforce what they think is best throughout the rest of the citizen pyramid. The dmocratisation of policy making, through sharing more data and engaging citizens.

This would be a new area of government decision making and a huge shift from where we sit now. The question I asked early last week after Hancock made his speech was: Is Whitehall ready for such a cultural shift?

I thought we would have to wait a bit longer than a few days to get our answer, but the Cabinet Office only waited until Friday before it slipped out another announcement that gives us a clearer idea of their readiness.

A commission has been set up – which has been described as cross-party, but has since been denounced by senior MPs in the Labour party – to review the process of Freedom of Information requests. And why is it being reviewed? The Cabinet Office says:

Our aim is to be as open as possible on the substance, consistent with ensuring that a private space is protected for frank advice. To that end as a government we must maintain the best environment for policy-makers to think freely and offer frank advice to decision-makers. The most effective system is when policy makers can freely give advice, whilst citizens can shine a light into government.

Yup, that's right, the commission has been set up because those in government need a “private space” for policy decision making. It is saying one thing and doing another. It is actively putting plans in place that counter-act the open data agenda described by Hancock earlier on in the week.

Not only this, but the panel includes former Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard, who has had some of his government decisions revealed under FOI requests, and Labour's Jack Straw, who although helped draft the original law has since openly criticised FOIs. Impartial?

Since the release there has been growing concern from a number of areas about the nature of the commission. For example, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham offered his support and said:

We will be happy to share with the commission our experiences from a decade of regulating this Act. As we have said in the past, the Freedom of Information Act has opened up the corridors of power to greater scrutiny, and government, at all levels, is better for it. The Act is not without its critics, but in providing a largely free and universal right of access to information, subject to legitimate exceptions, we believe the freedom of information regime is fit for purpose.

The CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation, Anne Jellema, added her concerns:

We were frustrated to learn that the UK Government has used its ranking in our Open Data Barometer in an effort to justify a move that could water down the Freedom of Information Act.

The ODB primarily measures the supply, use and impact of data in reusable formats and is not a comprehensive measure of government openness in the broader sense. The UK’s first place ranking should not be an excuse to undo progress. In fact, it gives the UK a responsibility to enhance and continually improve as an example to the rest of the world. The fact that the UK Government is taking a step back when the UK still lags behind many other European countries on important measures of transparency and accountability,  such as limits to state surveillance powers, and freedom of the press, is of great concern.

Open data initiatives rely on proactive disclosure, but it is vital that open data is reinforced by strong freedom of information mechanisms to ensure citizens can access what government agencies may not wish to disclose. We urge the Government to uphold its Freedom of Information Act, and appoint a panel member with expertise in government transparency to ensure all points of view are considered.

Whilst Labour MP Tom Watson, who played a role in taking the government to court over its surveillance laws, which were found unlawful, said:

It is quite clear this isn’t a review, it’s a process to roll back the Freedom of Information Act. This is an Act which should be extended to cover more public bodies, yet the Government is going to weaken it by making changes that will render it virtually useless for people who believe in greater accountability.

There is also an online campaign, which has received over 46,000 signatures since the weekend. You can sign it here.

My take

Without the FOI request we as citizens would still be in the dark over things like the MPs expenses scandal and the recent revelation that British pilots have been involved in bombing in Syria.

As a journalist, I often make use of the FOI to give our readers at diginomica the fullest picture possible of going-ons in government. There are frequent examples of me going through other channels (such as the Cabinet Office press office) to ask for information, which has only resulted in my being fobbed off, and then having to get the information I needed through an FOI. And let's be clear, the information being protected in each of those examples was largely done so because of the fear of 'bad PR', not because it wasn't valuable to citizens.

FOIs are incredibly valuable in bringing important information to light – let's remember that public data isn't owned by Whitehall. We pay our taxes, we have a right to know how they are being spent.

Yes, FOIs can be expensive and they can be annoying for government departments. I agree with that. But the value they bring is unquantifiable. Dumping unusable datasets online and saying “look, we're an open government” won't cut it I'm afraid.

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