“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop…I quake at the imbecility of it.” So Tony Blair berates himself in his memoirs for passing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which came into force in 2005. The realities of power transformed him from an advocate of official openness into a despairing critic.
Mr Blair’s jaded attitude seems not yet to have infected the coalition government, which is planning to let a little more light into the tenebrous corridors of Whitehall. In opposition, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, promised to promote transparency. It is a cause that Mr Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have long championed, arguing that it will improve the workings of government, while the Tories see informed citizens and an open state as essential conditions of their plans to devolve power.
To those ends, the government intends to broaden the scope of the FOIA, extending it to currently uncovered parts of the state, among them the Association of Chief Police Officers, an outfit that sets much policing policy, as well as the regulators that oversee many privatised industries. The government also plans to reduce the length of time that official records remain sealed from 30 years to 20 (the rule looks rather quaint now that former ministers publish tell-all memoirs within months of leaving office).
Other changes are already revealing more details of how government works. The Downing Street website features a new “transparency” section that discloses, among other things, which lobbyists and potentates are meeting which ministers and when. All central-government spending of more than £25,000 must be published, as well as local government spending of over £500. The government is keen, at least in theory, to make available much of the data that it holds, for the perusal and analysis of “armchair auditors” and enthusiastic nerds (see article).
Britain’s small but vocal freedom-of-information lobby has given the plans a cautious welcome. Maurice Frankel, who runs the Campaign for Freedom of Information, is heartened that the government has pressed ahead despite having plenty of other things on its plate.
Nevertheless, much will remain whelmed in mystery. Messrs Cameron and Clegg both promised before the general election that the new regime would cover Network Rail, an oddly constituted body laden with publicly backed debt that runs Britain’s railway tracks. That idea seems to have been ditched. Northern Rock, a bank nationalised in 2008, will escape scrutiny; the rules concerning the royal family are to be tightened. Private firms that administer parts of the NHS, criminal justice, schools and other public services will also be exempt (Scotland, which has separate laws, is considering making big contractors subject to FOI requests).
And changing the rules might not, by itself, fix a cultural resistance to scrutiny within some bits of government. Heather Brooke, a journalist who did much of the spadework that led to the revelations over dodgy expense claims by MPs, thinks that parts of the British state are run “almost feudally,” and remain resistant to explaining their workings to mere voters. She argues that better enforcement of the existing system would do more to inform the public of what is done in its name than fiddling with it. That might be a vain hope: the Information Commissioner’s Office, which enforces the Freedom of Information Act, has a hefty backlog of cases—and, under the government’s austerity plans, is facing cuts.
Fiat a little more lux: The coalition hopes to build on one of Tony Blair’s biggest regrets (The Economist, 20 January 2011)