« Against Parris on democracy | Main | Religion in egalitarian politics »

May 27, 2007



Surely the folly lies not in allowing some Govt business to remain confidential, but in ever pretending otherwise. And in forcing FOI on others while exempting themselves.

Mark Wadsworth

Taking a step back, you have to edcuate people in the delights of Edward de Bono's "Six thinking hats".

As long as ideas like considering whether to nationalise supermarkets are made while wearing the Green Hat, that gives you permission to think out loud and say what you like - however mad or counter-inuitive.

So the ministers in this example would just say "I said that with a Green Hat on" and that's that cleared up.


I think the majority of us are at one on this.

Bob B

Well said, dearime.

S&M: "But why should openness harm the development of policy?"

There were solid grounds for initial scepticism about FOI when it was first launched in the run-up to the 1997 election. At the time, it seemed such an appealing idea but then, as a few of us had anticipated, that has proved entirely premature.

During those (possibly partly mythical) olden times, before the extensive politicisation of the civil service by the Blair government [*], the evolution of policy in government departments could be the subject of less restrained open internal debates both between civil servants and between civil servants and the private offices of ministers because advice to ministers was held to be confidential. And there have long been informal links between the civil service and diffuse networks of business leaders, academia, lobby groups and top-flight journalists.

In that context, it was politically much easier for ministers to change direction or adapt policy proposals to incoming advice without embarrassmment. With the constitutional doctrine of ministerial accountability firmly upheld, ministers also had better reason to take heed of critical advice before rolling out new policy.

Now that it has become fashionable for ministers to blame and abuse the civil service for failures of both policy and execution, the civil service needs FOI and leaking in order to defend its own integrity, which is plausibly why present ministers now want to backtrack and unwind the legislative commitment to FOI.

[*] Recall that Sir Alec Cairncross served as chief economic adviser in HM Treasury from 1961, during the term of Harold Macmillan's government, through to 1968 during Harold Wilson's government. He was succeeded by Sir Donald MacDougall who remained in post from 1969 through 1973, during which there was a change in government. In those times, it wasn't considered necessary that the Chancellor of the Exchequer needed his own special economic adviser.


Dearime and Bob B make very interesting points. I have also posted about this today.

I think it is worth considering whether there is a risk that, by overstressing one particular ideal (e.g. "opennness"), we paradoxically end up moving backwards on that dimension. Perhaps not dissimilar to "civil liberties", i.e. by creating a lot of new variants on the old theme (e.g. ECHR) we end up having to backtrack to a position that is worse than the one we started with.

Bob B

Famously, Edmund Burke wrote: Liberty must be limited in order to be possessed.

Whether intentionally or not, FOI does change the relationship between ministers and civil servants. The latter are certainly far more likely to mull over how ministers might react to unwelcome advice if the advice is likely to be put into the public domain and cause political difficulties.

Civil servants often pick up information or intelligence relating to policy proposals through external contacts and some of that could be potentially important but recognised as less than 100% reliable.

I'm all for "evidence-based policy" but sometimes evidence is not available and would take time to collect and research when the media are howling for action. I believe civil servants would be more willing to pass on uncertain intelligence or results from research in progress to ministers, with due caveats, if they can depend on the bond of confidentiality being maintained than if they know it will be dug over by the popular press looking for a headline and when all the caveats will be overlooked or forgotten.

We also need to take account of the fact that there are now close on to twice as many (politically appointed) special advisers in government departments advising ministers than there were at the end of the last Conservative government. Special advisers also alter the chemistry of the relationships between the civil service and ministers - they have privileged access to ministers and some will nuture ambitions for subsequent political careers on their own account.

The comments to this entry are closed.

blogs I like

Why S&M?

Blog powered by Typepad