FOI: Refusing to release information for fear of public reaction?

Understandably, the proposed closure of coastguard stations has been a much-reported issue in various parts of the country. The West Briton is one of a number of newspapers which has turned to FOI to try and find out what the government has planned for the coastguard station it is most interested in – Falmouth.

The reason for refusal from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will be familiar to many: They wouldn’t release the information because it could “inhibit free and frank provision of advice or exchange of views for deliberation”.

I know the FOI officers involved are only using a tried and tested exemption under FOI when reaching this decision, and in the eyes of the law, they have done nothing wrong.

But I can’t help but think the law is wrong here. Ultimately, the people being asked to come up with ideas around controversial matters such as coastguard station closures are being paid by the public purse. The ideas they make should be made public. A much better system would be to say what the ideas were, and maybe to redact the names of those behind the idea. This would at least ensure that there was a transparent view of the discussions which lead up to decisions.

The idea that a public view of discussions on sensitive matters will lead to controversial ideas being sidelined because of a fear that they might be disclosed doesn’t make sense. After all, if the controversial idea is accepted as the best way forward, it becomes public anyway.

The response to West Briton goes on, according to the paper:

The MCA said disclosure of the documents would “inhibit free and frank provision of advice or exchange of views for deliberation”.

Among the arguments against releasing the information, it said: “Ministers and officials need space to develop their thinking and explore options in light of the responses from the public and shareholders. Release of the information risks diverting the focus of consultations responses away from the published proposals.

“There needs to be a free space to test scenarios and evaluate unpopular decisions.

“This involves making assessments on which centres should be closed, how many posts remain and what technology is utilised. This needs to be undertaken without fear that decisions will be held up as not credible.”

It also said “premature disclosure” of “preliminary thinking” could close off options because of the adverse public reaction.

Some of this seems understandable, but the last line defies belief. After all, the adverse public reaction to the preliminary thinking will be just as adverse if the discussions become the full plan. Only then, it’s much harder to go back on the plans without performing a U-turn.

If you follow the logic of the last line, they’d be more than happy to release information which they thought might get a positive reception.

The Government is very quick to push councils to be more open and transparent about their decisions. Tweaking FOI legislation to enable campaigners to get access to information as decisions would help create a more transparent environment and one in which the public can shape thinking, rather than simply fight a rear-guard action against it.

 

 

One comment

  1. I think you only have to look at Climategate to get a sense of what damage an “adverse public reaction” to preliminary ideas can do. Scientists were pilloried for using phrases that make perfect sense in their day-to-day discussions, because they were spun out-of-context by people specifically looking to discredit scientists to further their own agenda. The personal lives of the scientists involved were in many cases ruined as a result, with reputations unfairly smeared. (http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/silencing-the-scientists-the-rise-of-right-wing-populism/)

    The advantage of discussions being taken behind closed doors is that statements can be made which are then thought through and dismissed without fear of the shit sticking. There can be frank and unguarded discussion of potentially controversial policy options without the fear that someone will dredge the discussion later on for out-of-context quotes that could be spun to unfairly damage the reputation of individuals who took part in that discussion. Redacting names from the documentation may help, but is prone to errors, still doesn’t guarantee anonymity (identities can be inferred by other means), and is non-trivial and time-consuming. I would regard the cost of having some bureaucratic wonk going through the reams of documents removing names as a massive waste of money.

    The difference between adverse reaction to a comment made during preliminary thinking and adverse reaction to a policy decision is that in the former case it isn’t fair for shit to stick to an individual, because often there’s no appreciation of the context within which that comment was made. This often goes on to make a sensible and rational discussion of the policy implications of that comment impossible because the public’s outrage has got ahead of itself; “What would the implication of closing the coastguard be?” gets changed to “OMG they’re gonna close the coastguard!!” once it gets into the public domain.

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