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Aaron McKenna: Our government hides its actions by obstructing Freedom of Information

To hide public service deficiency and ensure that ‘accountability’ remains a word in the dictionary, senior public servants have been waging a long war on Freedom of Information, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

SENIOR PUBLIC SERVANTS are an incompetent bunch, as groups of people go. Not all of them to the last man and woman, but significant proportions of them are – to judge by the results of their labours in many fields – fairly deficient.

To hide this deficiency and ensure that ‘accountability’ remains a word in the dictionary, senior public servants have been waging a long war on Freedom of Information. They had the original FOI law gutted under Charlie McCreevy, once a few years had passed since the tribunals that shamed public administration into becoming more transparent.

The current government swung into office on a very simple and clear promise to restore the law to its former glory. Movement in government can be dangerous, however; creating the opportunity for vested interests to secure their positions in the upheaval.

In great “Yes, Minister” fashion, the mandarins of Dublin 2 managed to contrive that this restorative reform of the law be turned into an opportunity to fillet the idea of transparent government even further than before. By fudging what counted as an “administrative unit”, they had effectively created a situation where FOI requests would have a bottomless and unchallengeable cost to anyone who would make them.

It perhaps speaks to one of the core competencies of senior public servants that this happened to the great crusade to restore FOI: their ability to capture politicians when they become ministers and steer them towards doing quite the opposite even to what they promised to do as candidates.

A bottomless money pit

Alas, our senior public servants were less successful in convincing the opposition, media and society at large. Like so many other things, they botched their attempt to ensure that holding the public service to account would become considerably more difficult.

They really do live in a different world, this lot, to think that a proposal to make FOI requests a bottomless money pit for all who would dare attempt them would go unnoticed or uncommented upon.

The public service is good at making FOI difficult as it is. There are many tales of the cheap obstruction tactics used by public administrators to stymie attempts to get to the truth mainly of how government goes about wasting our money. Shane Ross was once told that an FOI request would cost several thousand euros to complete, but when he offered to send a cheque in immediately the pretense was dropped; as the public servants in question knew that the charge would never stand up on appeal, which Ross was very likely to attempt.

The excellent TheStory.ie has been working long and hard to uncover things like Ministerial diaries and appointments during the crash and government spending and expenses scandals. There’s a good chance you’ve read a story or two sourced from their digging, alongside work done by great investigative journalists in all our media outlets, including this one.

Puerile public servants attempt to make life as difficult as they possibly can, by for example printing out perfectly searchable spreadsheets so that they can photocopy and scan them back in for release. This turns large data grabs, for example detailing government expenditures, very difficult to parse and analyse without rebuilding the data by hand.

It’s a very simple but efficient blocking tactic, among others employed to most FOI requests that are made.

Why does government goes to such lengths to hide its actions?

It begs the question as to why the permanent government goes to such great lengths to hide what they get up to on a daily basis. Who benefits from this obstruction? Well, one might think that the incompetent and those seeking to avoid accountability might have a problem with the idea of a transparent government.

We ought to have as completely transparent a government as is practicable. The government acts on behalf of the citizens of this country, and it ought not to be allowed to hide anything but the most sensitive information from them. We pay the bills and we ought to be let see what we’re getting.

With technology where it is today, it would not be beyond the realms of the reasonable – if you put enough of those clever engineers re-ordering the world from the technology hub in this very country – to categorise every document that is created and mark it for publication in short order.

As documents are created, they could be marked at source for an opt-out of FOI if they are sensitive; or certain classes of documents, such as obvious things like patient records or commercially sensitive information, could be excluded completely. The Information Commissioner could take appeals on the stuff that is opted out of FOI, and instead of spending all that time to release data, we could be spending the time to haggle over what gets kept secret.

It’d be an interesting undertaking, but given that companies here are working to categorise the world’s information at a pace heretofore unimaginable, it’s not an unreachable goal to imagine a 99 per cent transparent government.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Read: “This country’s gone wild with exaggeration”: Rabbitte says the FOI issue’s been blown out of all proportion

Read: Government backtracks on FOI Bill amendment on charges

Read: How will the new Freedom of Information charges compare to other countries?

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