New rights to access, but for most transparency is still as clear as mud


Two weeks after new public access rules came in under the UK Freedom of Information Act, precisely what is meant by transparency is still not clear or easily understood, according to leading academics and experts at the launch of the ESRC Public Services Programme at the British Academy.

Administrations in other countries - Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland - have failed to deliver on the openness promised with similar legislation, says Alasdair Roberts, a Canadian freedom of information specialist and associate professor at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University in the United States.

Instead, they have developed elaborate systems for managing sensitive requests for information.

And he says there is evidence to suggest that officials in the UK are similarly putting in place controls to ensure that ministers here are not tripped up by questions from MPs and journalists.

Alasdair Roberts will be among the speakers at the workshop being held on Friday (January 14) at the British Academy in London.

The aim of the research programme Director, Christopher Hood, Gladstone Professor of Government and Fellow of All Souls, University of Oxford, is a full and frank examination of transparency and its consequences. According to Alasdair Roberts, there are ways of dealing with the worst effects of governments developing procedures to handle sensitive inquiries.

The first is to force officials to commit their procedures to paper, so making them vulnerable to disclosure. The second is by using the information commissioner. Too often, in other countries, he says, commissioners have treated all requests for information in the same way, whereas, in reality, governments routinely discriminate against sensitive inquiries from MPs and journalists. He says that commissioners should similarly give special rapid responses to complaints about delay or obstruction.

Christopher Hood said: "Transparency is regarded as a central aspect of modern democracy and public service reform. Open access to information and doing away with secrecy is seen as key to preventing corruption and promoting public accountability.

"A host of benefits are assumed to flow from it, including certainty, predictability and fairness, as well as making it possible to challenge what the authorities tell us. "But precisely because it is so freely invoked by those anxious to bring about social change and improvements, it merits closer and more critical attention than it has had so far."

Transparency is now at the heart of developments in such fields as law, economics, accountancy, political science and public administration, and has become important in other areas such as the information sciences.

Professor Hood argues that because this openness is perceived and interpreted in various ways in different contexts, its precise meaning can be obscure.

That is why he has brought together a select group of scholars from Britain and the United States, and people with hands-on experience of introducing and operating freedom of information legislation (see Notes for Editors).

Professor Hood said: "We will be exploring what the introduction of transparency does to the decision-making processes, and how institutions respond to measures intended to increase openness - and with what consequences."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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