Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The same problems everywhere

Thanks to the Reserve Bank's efforts to evade public scrutiny, we now seem to have a public debate on charging for OIA requests (Bryce Edwards has a good summary here). But we're not the only ones. The UK is currently reviewing its Freedom of Information Act (before a strapped chicken "independent" commission of FOIA-hating establishment mandarins), and the issue of charging has been raised there as well:

Imposing fees on Freedom of Information requests would be “an extremely blunt instrument” that would limit access to justice, human rights campaigners have said.

Leading charity Liberty said it had used the act to expose injustices including discrimination under police stop and search rules and said that any reforms that downgraded Freedom of Information powers would be a “retrograde step”.


However, giving evidence to the commission, Sam Hawke, an FOI specialist at Liberty, said the Act had in fact saved money by highlighting inappropriate uses of public money.

“Discussion of burden is inappropriate,” he said. “This is simply what a Government pays for, to remain open, transparent and accountable, and it’s a very, very small cost overall.

And that, fundamentally, is the issue. Freedom of information is about open, transparent government. That costs money, but like Parliamentary oversight and "expensive" elections its just what you pay to have a functioning modern democracy. Imposing charges undermines that democracy. It creates barriers to transparency which can be deployed to hide incompetence and malfeasance and hinder accountability. And that means not just less democratic government, but less accountable and less effective government. And even if you don't care about democracy, you should probably care about that.