Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A veto

Earlier in the year, the British government "reformed" the NHS, cutting and privatising services in the hope of gaining a more "efficient" (meaning "cheaper") health service. As part of the normal policy work around the reforms, officials prepared a "risk register" - a list of what could go wrong, how likely it was, and what the effects would be. Naturally, this information was withheld from MPs debating the bill, on the basis that it would make the government look bad. And so naturally, someone requested it under the UK's Freedom of Information Act.

That request was naturally denied. That denial was challenged, and overturned by the Information Commissioner, and then again by the Information Tribunal. But rather than obey the law and release the information, or appeal the decision to the courts, the British Cabinet has instead vetoed its release. I guess it must make the government look really bad then.

Of course, the ostensible reason for the veto isn't "PR", but the need for the government to be able to receive "free and frank advice". According to the government, exposing risk registers to public scrutiny would result in officials sanitising them. Which I think tells us more about British politicians' view of public servants as unprofessional yes-men than anything else. This excuse had already been considered and rebutted by the Information Commissioner and Tribunal. But the politicians apparently know better (and of course, their self-interest in avoiding embarrassment has absolutely nothing to do with it...)

(As an aside, here in NZ public servants assume public release, and treat it as a discipline. They know their work must withstand public scrutiny, and that they will be rightly criticised if they don't do their jobs properly)

The veto will be reported on by the Information Commissioner next week (it may in fact be too late, and hence unlawful). But if it is upheld, then hopefully some public minded public servant will do the obvious, and simply leak it. After all, if the government wants to keep something secret this badly, then it is precisely something the public should be informed of.