Select Committee on Public Administration Memoranda


  1.  There is a distinction between freedom of information and open government.

  2.  Open government as practised in Britain means the Government engaging in widespread consultation before formulating policy or coming to a decision, and publishing Green Papers and White Papers and other discussion documents to that end. The government does this largely for its own purposes. It wants to test its proposals and refine them in order to formulate a better policy or come to a better decision; and it wants to assess public reaction and the strength of opposition to particular proposals. Exposing proposals to be hammered on the anvil of public opinion thus has a two-fold purpose: it sharpens up the proposals and it softens up public opinion.

  3.  Open government does not, pace the Croham directive, mean the Government publishing the background papers once a decision has been reached. By this stage the Government no longer has an interest in sounding out public opinion; the officials involved are much too busy getting on with the next thing; and the public are not particularly interested in the background to last year's or last week's news. I cannot think of any instance in the Home Office where background papers have subsequently been published, except in the context of an enquiry or similar post mortem.

  4.  Open government thus means publishing what the Government wants the people to know about a particular proposal or decision. Freedom of information means entitling the people to ask for what they want to know. The two things are very different. What the people want to know is very rarely what government thinks they want to know. FOI requests show that there is little interest in policy advice. The main area of demand is for personal files. That apart, requests tend to be for things like contractual information and technical reports. To take a Home Office example, the Immigration Department would be just as likely to receive requests for its computer plans for the next 10 years (from a software supplier), or for details of proposals to increase part-time working (from the trade union side) as they would to receive a request for forecasts of future immigration numbers of refugee asylum cases.

  5.  By focusing so much on policy advice, the debate in this country gives a misleading impression of what FOI is likely to be used for. Requesters tend to be more concerned with pursuing private interests than with matters of wider public interest. Because requests seldom touch on matters of political controversy, the great majority are granted, as can be seen from the following table.

FOI Refusal Rates in Australia, Victoria and Canada 1982-83 to 1986-87



(Note the steady decline in the refusal rate in each country as departments grow accustomed to the legislation).

  6.  Open government is not a substitute for FOI, because the Government cannot predict what people will want to know. Nor is FOI a substitute for open government. Governments which have introduced FOI do not dismantle their information machines. They continue to publish the same amount of White Papers, discussion documents etc as before. They have to: "open government" is essential for any democratic government in the late 20th century because of the need to consult so many interest groups in the course of decision-making.

  7.  FOI is an adjunct to open government, an optional extra. It is understandable why the British Government has tried to meet demands for FOI by demonstrating how much more open the government is; but the extra information published in the name of open government is unlikely to be the sort of information which people would seek through FOI. In particular, no government is ever likely voluntarily to publish information which undermines its case.

  This note was first written for Sir Brian Cubbon, Permanent Secretary in the Home Office, in September 1987.

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Prepared 16 August 1999