Walk the walk

Chris Graham gave an impressive interview to the Guardian which is published today. It’s nice to see the Information Commissioner standing up for the principles of transparency and Freedom of Information in the face of what everyone can see is an establishment backlash. As the article says:

There are some very powerful voices saying it [the act] has all been a horrible mistake. Specifically, Tony Blair, Gus O’Donnell [the former head of the civil service] and the prime minister himself,” he said before adding the name of Simon Jenkins, the former Times editor and Guardian columnist.

To that list, we can also add Francis Maude, who imagines that he can make FOI redundant, and various slippery ministers who have allegedly been using private emails to get around legitimate scrutiny of their activities. Graham makes a compelling case, arguing that those who talk down FOI set the tone for everyone else. It cannot be a coincidence that the Cabinet Office’s record on FOI is dismal, given that it was until recently run by O’Donnell. The former Cabinet Secretary’s public antipathy towards FOI reared its head only when he decided to retire, but it’s probably a safe assumption that he wasn’t privately cheerleading for it before that.

Graham also skewered Maude’s patronising line on transparency, by arguing that “Sometimes the full story is in the background papers and minutes of meetings rather than just raw data.

Graham’s analysis is right. People don’t always pay attention to the people at the top (just look at what happened to poor Bob Diamond, an honest man undone by a tiny number of unruly minions), but if they are given any excuse to be lazy, or to misbehave by the example set higher up, they’ll do it (just look at what happened…). I know of an organisation where the head of IT complains that having to remember a password to activate their Blackberry is too onerous and makes them look daft. The person responsible for Data Security might as well quit for all the good their efforts will do. If David Cameron was the politician he claimed to be – the one who offered ‘the most open and transparent government ever‘ – then his approach to FOI would be very different. No-one would have believed Cameron if he pretended he was a big fan of the legislation, but a respectable politician would acknowledge it as an inconvenient but necessary part of an accountable democracy. Instead he whinges about FOI furring up the arteries of government while the Cabinet Office holds secret information on plans to charge for FOI requests that they at first claim does not exist.

Graham’s aplomb at dealing with the media draws a sharp and creditable contrast with his hesitant predecessor. Occasionally, there is misjudgement (as I said before, “wake up and smell the CMP” was an awful headline and whoever came up with it should be made to sit a corner for a while). Nevertheless, the Commissioner is saying the right things and anyone who supports FOI should be happy that he isn’t congratulating himself for not taking on the big targets, which is what Richard Thomas did at Leveson.

The problem for Graham is clearly not a lack of ambition or self-belief. In one sense, the problem of doing the job of championing transparency is that you have to do it in a world shrouded in bullshit and euphemism. I listened to less than an hour of of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, and as well as all the usual spin and lies, even the language was dishonest. After John Humphrys took someone to task for describing G4S as a ‘partner’ instead of a ‘contractor’, I started to hear the word everywhere, and never in a truthful context. Corporations bankrolling the Olympics were ‘partners’ rather than ‘advertisers’; TV companies screening Scottish Premiership Football were ‘partners’ rather than well, TV companies. Everyone wanted to wrap professional and commercial relationships in a blanket that implied a shared and personal endeavour, rather than each side being interested only in getting what they could out of the deal with minimum effort. The same circumlocutions infect politics and government, national and local. Doing the FOI job in these circumstances is like wading through custard.

However, one thing he can do is keep his own house in order. The Tribunal often has to criticise the ICO for their handling of FOI compliance – read paragraph 25 of this recent decision for a good example. The ICO ignores its own guidance on FOI by challenging an FOI applicant using an obvious pseudonym for no real reason, and then exemplifies the inherent flaw in that guidance by backing down the moment the fake-named applicant pushes back. More seriously, a certain blogger asked a sensible question about information notices and ended up finding out that the ICO doesn’t know how many information notices they have issued under FOI. As well as the clear implication that ICO staff are not following their own procedures (if they were, it would not exceed the FOI cost limit for the ICO to find all of the notices), there is a bigger point that whoever is corporately responsible for FOI strategy within the Office doesn’t have all of the information they need to do their job. How can they look for patterns of underlying problems (which multiple info notices would suggest) if they don’t even know how many they’ve issued?

I am, of course, assuming that someone is doing this, rather than everyone frenetically trying to keep the backlog on a leash. If they’re not, Graham’s words turn to ash in his mouth. Things are better than they were. Graham’s profile is bigger. The frenetic backlog bashing does at least mean that organisations cannot rely simply on the passage of time to escape accountability. I don’t imagine ministers slept easy in their beds when the ICO stood its ground on private email (and ministers should never sleep easy). For all of these things, Chris Graham deserves credit. But talk is cheap. Until the ICO can show that its own FOI and records management practice is exemplary, it cannot lecture anyone else. Until it shows that the most recalcitrant government departments will be brought to heel on FOI, every council and NHS trust will be justified in saying that they’re busy and under-resourced, and FOI is a burden they don’t need.

So two cheers for being a great advocate – the third is reserved for delivery.

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