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The key upholders of democracy

Transparency is once again back in the spotlight, with increasing calls from across government to increase it. This has been an ongoing theme over the past few years with investigations into the use of personal email and tribunals questioning the function of the ‘requester blind’ principle when it comes to the applicant’s territory.

The idea of government transparency as a pillar of democracy has certainly increased in resonance. The ICO, upon the appointment of John Edwards, recently invited comment, through its listening exercise, asking what should be put right to ensure this democratic fundamental is maintained. Given the ongoing headlines around transparency, it will be interesting to see whether this results in further scrutiny and whether FOI will be forced higher up the agenda.

Here is what we believe to be some of the main topics of debate.

  • What can English and Welsh FOI legislators learn from their Scottish counterparts? Should they adopt Scotland’s stance of central collation and publication? Should they, as Scotland has already done, seek to embrace more public services within the scope of FOI, particularly given the greater role outsourcing plays within the public sector? Are there resources to do this, and is its importance high enough to warrant bringing in further resources?
  • With FOI performance figures, we know that larger government departments publish their figures via the Cabinet Office, but not all of their agencies or other public services do, even though they should. Is it not counterintuitive that legislation that is all about transparency doesn’t centrally publish these figures? Surely the figures are a clue on the success of transparency? What would we learn about the state of transparency if figures were published?
  • With a seemingly low drive to increase transparency, it is up to the practitioners and public authorities themselves to maintain this fundamental of democracy. Without it, we are left with fewer opportunities to learn and understand, whilst useful information that is in the public interest may not see daylight.

As a bystander, fortunate enough to work with fantastic FOI practitioners across government, I feel the time is now for FOI practitioners to step out of the shadows and force greater central collation and publication.

If the ICO is successful in bringing about positive change, it will be interesting to see whether there will be a need to keep pace with requirements for transparency and whether FOI practitioners can anticipate change and be proactive in managing it.

FOI practitioners have the opportunity to become the positive drivers for change and digital transformation that the public sector needs. To do that, they need the right resources, the right processes and the right services in place to demonstrate the value that FOI can bring.

Let us know your thoughts by commenting or messaging us. Do you have the right resources, processes and services in place? What are your greatest challenges? What positive changes can the ICO make?

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