Freedom of Information and the civil service

This article first appeared in Westminster Explained, Public Sector Training News, November 2004

By Heather Brooke
New laws giving the public a ‘right to know’ go live in January and civil servants will play a crucial role in the success or failure of this new legislation. Will we see the promised change from a culture of secrecy to openness? Or will it just be business as usual?

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000 finally comes into force on 1st January 2005, followed in short succession by new Environmental Information Regulations 2004. Both laws give the public a legal right to ask for and receive information from more than 100,000 agencies.

The UK is one of the last countries in the industrialised world to adopt such freedom of information laws, but campaigners hope we will quickly catch up. Sir Andrew Turnbull, Cabinet Secretary and head of the Home Civil Service, has stated that civil servants will be key in implementing the FOI Act and training has been in place since last year to ensure they are aware of the new laws.

Traditionally both Government and civil servants have been seen as the opponents of the principles of FOI. The caricature is of Sir Humphrey of Yes Minister fame, exemplifying disdain for what is characterised as public ‘meddling’ in officials’ business.

This attitude has been changing throughout the nineties and January 2005 will see a big step change. While I was researching my book on the subject, I was encouraged by the increasing number of public servants I interviewed who genuinely believe in the value of open government.

The main issue that is often talked about in relation to FOI is the ‘culture change’ that it is meant to initiate. And luckily this attitudinal change is something that takes no preparation at all. So even if a department or organisation is in the most basic stage of preparation for implementing the Act’s statutory requirements, if it gets this right, it will be ahead of the game. What is required is a simple decision to change the way the public sector thinks about its interaction with the public.

One of the key principals of a democracy (the definition of which, after all, is “a political or social unit governed ultimately by all its members; the practice or spirit of social equality”) is that a government by the people can only work if the people have access to information. And the better informed the people, the stronger and more competent the democracy. It makes no sense to espouse beliefs in the principal of democracy whilst denying people the information on which it is run. Information is the fuel that powers all governments and whereas dictatorships hoard information, keeping their populaces ignorant and easily manipulated by selected disclosure, democracies share it, so the people (who are the rulers) can make informed decisions.

It is worth thinking about this the next time someone asks you for information and you are tempted to refuse, while weighing up the public interest tests. Embarrassment, for example, is not a reason to suspend democratic principals. In some cases after January 2005, embarrassing facts will come to light. That’s just the way it is.

Openness offers the opportunity to re-build trust with a currently sceptical public. Public servants have a crucial role in getting this new relationship off to a good start.