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Why some ministers and officials think freedom of information was a mistake
New report finds that Whitehall civil servants, special advisers and former ministers are strongly opposed to the way FoI is operating
After everything that's written about MPs' expenses, I suppose it's not surprising that ministers are now saying that the Freedom of Information Act was a bad idea. But Whitehall officials also seem to take the view now that it was a mistake.
The evidence for this comes from the report from the Constitution Unit at University College London called Understanding the Formulation and Development of Government Policy in the context of FoI. It's been out for a couple of weeks, and the BBC's Martin Rosenbaum has written about it on his blog, but I've only just taken a look and I think it deserves wider circulation.
The authors interviewed civil servants, special advisers and former ministers (on condition of anonymity) to ask them what they thought of FoI. What's interesting is that, although the respondents were generally in favour of FoI in principle, they were strongly opposed to the way it was operating in practice.
Here are some of the key quotes.
From a former minister:
Overall I have a sense of disappointment about FoI. Perhaps I was naive – but I had seen it as a significant step forward to making us a more literate democracy. But the reality is that FoI is just seen generally as a means of attacking the government, whether the request be from an interest group or a journalist. I would have hoped that people would begin to appreciate the complexities of government through knowing more. But there has not been much evidence of that. I still think it is fundamentally a good thing. But I am disappointed.
From an official:
I am afraid I am very negative about the FoI. It is used a lot in my area by pressure groups who are opposed to what we are seeking to do. There are a lot of "fishing trips", trying to get information which they can use in public, or even in the courts, to undermine our policy. And they will use any information received very selectively to support their own aims ... So in the future, I'll be making sure that there is nothing for them to get at. Part of our problem is that we have had a lot of internal material and our record keeping has been good. But I've told my team to make sure in future we minimise what we write down and minimise what we keep. So we'll be getting rid of emails quickly and we won't worry if the record is incomplete, so long as it contains nothing we wouldn't want to see released.
From another official:
I do think it was a mistake to establish a "public interest" test, to be decided (except when the veto is exercised) by the information tribunal. I think it is extremely difficult for people without personal experience of central government to understand our concerns about how the release of documents will affect the way government works.
From another former minister:
The problem with FoI is that it puts even more of your ministerial career into a goldfish bowl. You end up not being able to have private thoughts about what to do on a specific issue – or, worse than that, decide you have changed your mind – without the very real danger that the press will write the issue up in ways which are calculated to make you look ridiculous. This isn't only about FoI of course, but about the relentless drive by the press and media to make politicians look dishonest and incompetent. I do wonder whether anyone in future will be willing to go into public life at all.
The Constitution Unit says there is no evidence that FoI is having an adverse impact on the way decisions are being taken in Whitehall. But it does conclude that it could lead to "regrettable" changes in the way decisions are recorded.