The retiring Cabinet Secretary Gus O’ Donnell spoke in an interview today about the need to amend FOI to protect decision-making. He was concerned that the possibility of release led to officials ‘fudging’ the minutes.
“I want the minutes to accurately to reflect what people have said. I want good governance…I want them to have an open space. I want us not to be fudging the issue by saying there was a little discussion.”
He also spoke of the nervousness over lack of certainty in the law over Cabinet discussions.
‘He said he wanted more certainty that Cabinet minutes would be protected than offered by the current law, suggesting amendments to the Freedom of Information Act. “If we could draft it in a way that would really enhance openness and transparency whilst allowing some safe space, that would be good for all of us”.
What Gus O’ Donnell is referring to is a variant of the so-called Chilling Effect. We have concluded that FOI can have this effect but it doesn’t do so systemically and it is almost impossible to disentangle the effect of FOI from lots of other concerns (see page 16-18 in our local government report). However, these conclusions come with qualifications.
1. Finding evidence is very tough. FOI does cause nervousness but whether it then leads to changes is more difficult to prove. Gus also said in his interview ‘ he had not “fudged” any minutes, but was “nervous”. It would be interesting to see firm evidence and if the fudging refers to particular incidents or a general ‘shift’ in minute taking approaches. We found one or two clear cut cases but they were rare and unusual. Proving a negative and asking officials to admit unprofessional conduct is tricky.
2. Is it FOI to blame? Gus said that “Can I guarantee that this is going to stay private? No, I can’t.” But inhibitions (or lack thereof) over discussions are down to many things. Leaks were, are and always will be a huge issue- who said or did not say what and when was central to many recent controversies issues from the War in Iraq to the EU veto. A well timed leak can hinder many enemies foreign and domestic. Even US Cabinet discussion about the impact of Wikileaks was leaked.
3. Many politicians and officials told us that the ‘politics’ of decision is often ‘off paper’. How and why minutes are recorded how they is due to many things from style to resources. It plays into wider styles of ‘doing’ decisions. Do you do unminuted ‘sofa government’ or are you more formal?
4. Interestingly, overall there were some paradoxical views held. Officials at other levels were more concerned about the consequences of not having a record rather than having one.
5. Very few requests are actually made for Cabinet documents. Only one release of Cabinet Minutes has taken place over Thatcher’s controversial ‘Westland’ affair. Some countries, such as Canada, actually completely exclude all Cabinet material from FOI.
However, nervousness abounds among officials especially at senior level. This may also be heighted due to how they come into contact with FOI. Senior officials will only be copied into particularly sensitive or problematic requests. Unless they are particularly curious they will only see one in every hundred or thousand and the ‘worst’ one at that. In Ireland, such concern did help lead to a change in the law as it related to Cabinet documents.
Finally, Gus also spoke about the use of the ‘veto’ (called in the article the ‘nuclear weapon’) which can be deployed to overturn appeal decisions. This protection, then, is available but it has only been deployed twice in the UK. This compares with 48 times in the same early years of FOI in Australia. This seems to point to a perverse incentive-unlike a nuclear weapon or an EU veto – the more it is used the less attention it gets.