What the RHI Inquiry tells us about the ‘chilling effect’ of freedom of information laws

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The report into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme provided an insight into the functioning of government in Northern Ireland. Ben Worthy examines the extent to which it revealed that freedom of information laws have produced a ‘chilling effect’ and affected the completeness of the public record when it comes to ministerial discussions and decisions.

One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that Freedom of Information (FOI) laws could create an incentive to hide instead of open up. Could the presence of such laws lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? The particular concern is that laws designed to increase transparency might instead empty out the official record, so that meetings go un-minuted, conversations go unrecorded and that important audit trails simply disappear. Even where it goes on, this so-called ‘chilling effect’ is notoriously hard to prove. 

This was one of the many concerns raised as a consequence of scrutiny of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme in Northern Ireland. The alleged mishandling of the scheme partially led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017 and prompted an official inquiry, which reported last month. Back in March 2018, giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry, the Head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service, David Sterling, admitted that ‘the practice of taking minutes had “lapsed” after devolution’ and mentioned FOI specifically as a factor. Continue reading

Light and shadows: the RHI scandal and the temptations of secrecy

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The RHI inquiry in Northern Ireland has led to concerns about a record ‘void’ that has left room for doubt and suspicion. Ben Worthy argues that the lack of a record might aid political deniability, but means that politicians also can’t be truly exonerated when accused of wrongdoing.

Marilyn Stathern, in her famous article on the ‘Tyranny of transparency’, asked: ‘what does visibility conceal’?  While openness can shed light on some areas, it can also create shadows and shade to hide in. One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that openness will create an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of letting in the light, could freedom of information laws, open meetings or open data lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? Could it create what’s called a ‘chilling effect’, whereby officials and politicians bury their decisions elsewhere?

Finding any firm evidence for resistance, avoidance or concealment is notoriously difficult. It could take place in numerous ways, whether avoiding questions or requests, keeping records and decisions off paper, or using non-official emails or networks like WhatsApp. It’s hard to prove a negative, that something isn’t happening and, if avoidance done well, it should stay hidden. Only the most incompetent or inept are likely to be caught.

A few concrete examples have surfaced. We have had flashes of an apparent ‘chilling’ in the Trump White House and closer to home with Michael Gove using a private email address for public business in 2012 (as urged by his then adviser Dominic Cummings). More worrying was the evidence in Scotland in 2018 that some parts of government were engaged in ‘deliberate delaying tactics and requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons’. But are these isolated cases or the tip of an iceberg of systematic resistance? Studies have come to varying conclusions and a select committee in 2012 concluded that there was no firm evidence.

However, it now looks as though transparency campaigners’ worst nightmare has come to pass in Northern Ireland’s RHI scandal, as detailed in Sam McBride’s new book Burned. The RHI scandal, as the later Inquiry FAQ explains, concerns ‘the non-domestic renewable heat incentive… a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy’. However, the FAQ goes on, ‘how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern’. You can see the background here and a timeline. Continue reading

Why pass FOI laws? The politics of freedom of information

Ben Worthy

Why are there now more than 100 freedom of information laws around the world, even though they help opponents and hinder governments? In a new book, published this month by Manchester University Press, Ben Worthy investigates. He concludes that the main reason is that as a symbolic pledge in opposition FOI laws are hard to resist. Once in power these promises are hard to back down from, though experience suggests that proposed laws are often watered down before being enacted. These findings are summarised here.

worthy-bookWhy don’t more politicians react to freedom of information (FOI) like Lyndon Johnson? Why don’t more of them run a mile when presented with the possibility of giving the public a legal right to ask for information from the government? When the idea of an FOI law was suggested to Johnson in 1966 by a fellow Democrat Congressman the US President responded, after some swearing, ‘I thought you were on my side?’ As his Press Secretary explained:

LBJ… hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets and opening government files; hated them challenging the official view of reality.

For any budding politician, FOI appears to be the ultimate political boomerang. It helps your opponents. It hinders you.

To make FOI laws even less appealing, there are no votes in them. Merlyn Rees, a Home Secretary who fought hard against an FOI law in the 1970s, once exclaimed that ‘the Guardian can go on for as long as it likes about open government… but I can tell you that in my own constituency of 75,000 electors I would be hard pressed to find many who would be interested’. Only in India, where the Right to information Act was part of an anti-corruption campaign, have FOI laws responded to broad public enthusiasm. So how is it that there are now more than 100 FOI laws around the world?

The question is really why would a politician support FOI in the first place? Sometimes they believe in openness and sometimes leaders who don’t believe in it have it forced upon them, as Theresa May has discovered over Brexit. Other times it is for pure advantage, because a scandal makes it hard to avoid (as in Ireland), so a politician can ensure that they get information in the future or because it has promised FOI as part of a coalition deal (as in India). It is also about context. Often FOI laws are pushed through when there is lots of other constitutional or legal change going on. Across the world, as Rick Snell points out, organised groups and enthusiastic individuals, often ‘outsiders’, push for an FOI law when other key people are distracted or looking the other way.

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Disruptive or beneficial? Freedom of information in the UK

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On 1 March, to some surprise, the Burns Commission concluded that the Freedom of Information Act was ‘generally working well’. Ben Worthy and Robert Hazell explain how the Commission came to this unexpected result and, drawing on the results three major research projects, argue that since it came into force in 2005 FOI has achieved its primary objectives of making British government more accountable and transparent.

Freedom of information was in the news again when the Independent Commission, chaired by Lord (Terry) Burns, delivered its report on 1 March.  To some surprise, the Commission concluded the Act was ‘generally working well’, and there was ‘no evidence that the Act needs to be radically altered’. This was not the expectation when the Commission was established last summer, with a membership of Lord Burns, Lord (Alex) Carlile, Dame Patricia Hodgson, Lord (Michael) Howard, and Jack Straw.  Their terms of reference invited them to consider whether there was a need for sensitive information to have robust protection; whether the Act adequately recognised the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development; and whether change was needed to moderate the burden on public authorities.  All that suggested a report that was likely to restrict FOI in various ways, but that is not what has happened.  Why has the Commission come to this unexpected result?

The answer lies mainly in the evidence they received.  The Commission received over 30,000 written responses, with 29,334 coming via the 38 Degrees campaign website.  The media and civil society organisations like the Campaign for Freedom of Information were strongly supportive of the Act, and it was left to a few local authorities, police authorities and NHS Trusts to explain the burdens they felt it imposed.  No central government departments submitted evidence, so if the government had wanted to restrict FOI, its case went by default.

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Better than asking: an experiment on the effectiveness of FoI requests

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In July 2015 the government appointed a new independent commission to look into how the law on freedom of information (FOI) is working. Here, Ben Worthy, Peter John and Matia Vannoni explain how their field experiment provides evidence that FOI requests work, and that they are twice as likely to get a response than informal requests.

In 2010 Tony Blair felt that passing the Freedom of Information Act was one of his biggest mistakes; in 2012 David Cameron claimed requests were ‘furring up the arteries’ of government. In 2015, FOI became controversial again when, after a Supreme Court ruling, the government appointed an independent commission to look into how the law is working. All the debate on the benefits and costs of FOI rest on one question, which is whether the law actually works as it should. Does FOI enable a user to ask a question and get a response? Do public bodies comply? Finding this out is trickier than it sounds. Simply measuring numbers of requests may not tell us much, as we need to measure it against something else. Some great attempts have been made in Brazil, Mexico and in an international 14 country study.

Building on these, we devised an experiment to compare whether a request under the law works better than a more informal route: that of simply asking. We sent out a series of similarly-worded FOI requests and informal asks – the former specifically mentioned the FOI Act. This way we hoped we could see if an FOI with the force of law worked better than just asking informally.

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The government’s Freedom of Information commission tilts the political discussion towards damage and cost

Ben Worthy

On Friday of last week, the government announced a new commission on Freedom of Information. Here, Ben Worthy offers his response to the announcement, arguing that the objections to the scope and usage of FOI that have been raised are nothing new, and furthermore aren’t unique to the UK. Further, he argues that the commission’s remit tilts discussion naturally towards the two issues of damage and costs, rather than a more balanced cost/benefit analysis. 

What’s Wrong?

The questions in the remit of the commission boil down to asking ‘is FOI undermining decision-making’ and ‘is it too expensive’? The remit itself is, of course, priming discussion in a particular way, framing it  towards two issues of (1) whether FOI is hampering decision-making and (2) whether it ‘costs too much’ . So what does the evidence say?

Is FOI Hampering Decision-making?

Just to put this discussion into context:

  • Our 2010 study of FOI in the UK found very few requests for Cabinet documents and also found a broader lack of interest in the decision-making process. Leaks are a far more important cause of openness for these citadels of government decision-making than FOI.
  • UK governments since 2005 have used the veto seven (or technically eight) times, compared with 48 times in Australia in the first five years of its own FOI Act. This seems to indicate that ‘dangerous’ requests trying to prise open the very centre of government are relatively few in number, though their psychological effect may be disproportionate.

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10 Years of Freedom of Information in the UK: Tony, Tension and Turbulence

Ben Worthy

Ben Worthy looks at how the Freedom of Information Act has come to work in practice and the debates around whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. He argues that on balance it appears to be a success, bringing very public benefits and potentially unseen positive outcomes at local level as well.

‘The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet’ –Tony Blair 2010

‘The Freedom of Information Act has enhanced the UK’s democratic system and made our public bodies more open, accountable and transparent. It has been a success and we do not wish to diminish its intended scope, or its effectiveness’ – House of Commons Justice Select Committee 2012 Post-Legislative Scrutiny of FOI

These two comments sum up the difficulties of measuring how successful the UK Freedom of Information Act has been. It isn’t just about statistics on numbers of requests, users or refusals (though there are some here if you are interested). What people think also shapes how it works and how others then behave. So a former Prime Minister sees it as one of his biggest mistakes while a Parliamentary committee see it as a vital part of democracy. Which is it?

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