Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Freedom of Information Act and East Devon >>> >>> Deep State East Devon?

The commission looking into reforming the FOI Act
Futures Forum: The Freedom of Information Act >>> consultation on proposals to charge fees >>> deadline Friday 18th Sept

... has provoked a storm from across the political spectrum:
Ministers could start CHARGING for Freedom of Information | Daily Mail Online
An inside job: The committee examining how to reform the FoI act looks like a Conservative hit squad | Editorials | Voices | The Independent
Freedom of information? Don’t quote us | The Times

The Guardian view on the freedom of information commission: a very British farce

Ministers appointed a panel of establishment figures to advise them on FoI. Its recommendations could make it harder to root out inconvenient truths

Chair Lord Burns, Jack Straw, Lord Carlile, Dame Patricia Hodgson and Lord Howard The five members of the committee are, from left: chair Lord Burns, Jack Straw, Lord Carlile, Dame Patricia Hodgson and Lord Howard. Photograph: The Guardian/Rex
War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. Had the Party in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four been after a fourth slogan to add to the list, Openness is Opacity would have fitted well. But in Britain 2015, it is fast emerging as the operating principle of the so-called independent commission on freedom of information. “So-called” because it hardly seems independent, at least not in the sense of coming to its work with fresh eyes, unencumbered by preconceptions. So-called, too, because on the evidence thus far, it is less concerned with free information than imposing new restrictions upon its flow.
Before the commission was created this summer, No 10 began – just days after the Conservative election win – to float the idea of ministers acquiring new rights to block sensitive disclosures. The formal rubric which it works to, as set out in July by the Cabinet Office minister George Bridges, is plainly restrictive. Underneath some fine rhetoric about this being the world’s most transparent government, Lord Bridges tasked the commissioners with thinking about “robust protection” of sensitive documents, the “burden” of FoI upon the authorities, and the need for a “safe space” for official thinking – the same safe space argument which the original opponents of FoI had invoked all those years ago. If this remit did not make the agenda plain enough, the names of the commissioners surely did.
The five-strong panel included Jack Straw, who, though he had a hand in introducing FoI many years ago, has subsequently vetoed release of the cabinet minutes covering the Iraq war and called for wider restrictions covering policy development and ministerial communication. Alongside him is a former Tory home secretary of authoritarian bent, Michael Howard; Patricia Hodgson, who is now chair of Ofcom, a regulator which has previously complained about the cost of FoI compliance and its “chilling effect” on sound record-keeping; Alex Carlile, the former terror law watchdog who raged against the Guardian’s publication of Edward Snowden’s revelations about state surveillance; and, in the chair, the former Whitehall mandarin Terry Burns. To say that this bunch is more likely to take an insider’s view – to think first of the perspective of the bureaucracy being asked awkward questions, and only second of the citizen trying to root out inconvenient truths – is to put it mildly. Sir Humphrey would be thrilled by the panel’s “soundness”.
Last week, the commission set out its questions for consultation, with the emphasis on what new “protections” may be appropriate for the cabinet and other public bureaucracies, on what new vetoes may be required, and on the “burden” of FoI compliance, a discussion which could well end up in proposals for charges. The body held an official briefing for journalists, but – in a truly bizarre twist – barred them from reporting who had said what, or even who was present. So, in a very British farce, the debate about transparency is now being led by anonymous “sources close to the freedom of information commission”.
If FoI had one aim, it was meant to be forcing political decision-making out into the open. But Mr Straw this year let slip to undercover reporters that he thought some political work was best done “under the radar”. What an irony it would be if Britain’s transparency legislation ended up being neutered without detection.

Meanwhile, the FOI Act is also under threat in its birthplace, the United States:
Ralph Nader: Monsanto vs. Freedom of Information Act

And generally speaking, it is local authorities who seem to complain the most about the FOI Act:

From A to Z (Asteroids to Zombies), the British Just Want the Facts

Heather Brooke, a British-American journalist who used the government access law in 2009 to obtain details of the expenses of members of Parliament, said she had earlier found a stark difference from the United States. Though information in the United States is frequently held back from reporters by federal, state or local governments, it is often done in defiance of an overall philosophy, if not actual laws, supporting the public’s right to know.
In Britain, when she requested information that she had routinely accessed in the United States — like public officials’ names or salaries — “it was as though I’d asked for the keys to a nuclear bunker,” she said. “Not just a ‘no,’ but a disbelief that I’d had the temerity to even ask.”
It was Tony Blair, then a young opposition leader poised to take the reins of government, who pioneered freedom of information legislation in Britain. “We want to end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surrounds government activity, and make information available to the public,” he said in 1996.
It took nine years, but the law finally came into force on Jan. 1, 2005, permitting anyone to request and obtain information held by the public authorities.
Mr. Blair would later lament that this was one of his greatest mistakes in office, accusing the Freedom of Information law of being “utterly undermining of sensible government.”
“Freedom of information,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, “A Journey.”Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You na├»ve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.”
But Lord David Clark of Windermere, the cabinet minister in Mr. Blair’s government who drafted the Freedom of Information bill, said he remained happy that he was able to do so.
“The law was long overdue — Britain was among the last in a long line of Western countries to adopt F.O.I.,” he said.
In the decade since its adoption, the Freedom of Information act has been exposing incompetence, inefficiency and even corruption across more than 100,000 public bodies. Financial reports, expenses records, meeting minutes and private email correspondence have all been dragged into the public domain.
Still, the Freedom of Information law has been met with resistance. Local governments in particular complain that they lack the resources to process a growing volume of requests.
At Buckinghamshire County Council, workers last year spent 11,276 hours handling more than 1,700 requests, costing the taxpayers more than $400,000. The leader of the council, Martin Tett, complained of the cost in “times of austerity.”
“This is money we could be spending on other vital services, like children’s services or care for the elderly,” he said.
Mr. Blair and Lord Clark envisioned ordinary citizens primarily using the act. But according to Ms. Park, a substantial proportion of requests come from corporations “asking about subcontracting opportunities and so on.”
The authorities do not have to respond to what are described in the law, vaguely, as “vexatious” requests — those seeking information of a “frivolous” nature or deliberately aimed at disrupting the work of an authority. But Gareth Cosslett, a communications adviser at the Cumbria County Council, said local governments were wary of applying this clause too often as “it risks incurring the wrath of the information commissioner.”
From A to Z (Asteroids to Zombies), the British Just Want the Facts - The New York Times

Heather Brooke is skeptical, however:
FOI Britain is still 'suppressed and secretive' 10 years on | Media news

Looking to this part of the country, the East Devon District Council predictably complained 'that they lack the resources to process a growing volume of requests', following the report from the Information Tribunal:

Indeed, the District Council seems rather touchy about any inquiries which cause ‘aggravation and cost to the council’:

And there is certainly a perception that it is not willing to observe the spirit of the FOI Act:

See also:

Although this local authority is by no means alone in its attitudes towards greater transparency:

To what extent can this reluctance to divulge be seen as a symptom of the 'deep state'?

Here's a provocative piece from the Cato Institute:
There are at least two types of government in the United States, as noted most recently by Professor Michael J. Glennon.
The first type is either elected or else appointed by those who are. Its job is to be conspicuous. It wears suits and gets perfect haircuts and manicures. It cuts the ribbons and throws out the first pitches. Every school in the land teaches it in civics and history classes.
The first type of government constitutes the usual answer to the question “What is your government like?” Simple: “It’s three branches, with the President at the top of the executive…”
Prosaically, Professor Glennon calls this first type of government the Madisonian institutions; in observing a similar phenomenon, the Victorian journalist Walter Bagehot dubbed the analogous parts of his own government the “dignified” institutions.
Dignified – if only. What we really have is more like the “TV State.” Appearing on television was certainly not the role that James Madison envisioned for his institutions. Yet it’s the role that they fulfill today. In a democracy, the members of the TV State will come and go, obedient to democratic impulses and to the drudging imperative that everyone, the Kim Davises of the world most certainly included, must get their fifteen minutes of fame.
The characteristic faults of the TV State are gaffes: they are faults of appearance, and almost never of substance; the mistake occurs if and only if a viewer notices. Accountability is likewise visible, often swift, and often inconsequential, as with so much else about the TV State. It comes by way of the public apology, a familiar act with a well-known script, which is often enough seen, clucked over, and then simply forgotten.
Wittingly or unwittingly – it hardly matters – the TV State serves to legitimize the state as a whole. In particular, it legitimizes the government we don’t see so often.
Names for this other form of government vary, as do authors’ precise conceptions of the beast. Former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren has called it the “Deep State.” Professor Glennon calls it the “Trumanite Network,” in that President Truman was aware of, and presided over, much of this second state’s development, above all in the area of national security. In Victorian England, the journalist Walter Bagehot called it the “efficient state”; he charged – horrors – that in reality it was a republic.
Glennon fears that our own second state is rapidly becoming a despotism. Whatever we call it, it’s a government where Things Get Done – and where they are not talked about.
The second government is invisible, unaccountable, and active, each to the highest degree possible. Gaffes do not exist here. Failures only barely exist, and they consist mostly of breaches of security.
The most notable recent example of such a Deep-State failure is Mr. Edward Snowden, without whom we might be having a different conversation entirely.
As Glennon has argued, power has moved steadily away from Madisonian democratic institutions, and toward the autocracy of the unseen state: Why, he asks, has Barack Obama changed so little about the George W. Bush administration’s security apparatus? Why did Bush before him confess to a strange powerlessness in office, one that no one else seemed to understand? Why did Truman himself look forward cynically to Dwight Eisenhower taking over – and to the old general’s commands not being carried out?
The answer is the Deep State, which dwarfs the TV State both in size and in power, and which plays by its own rules. The president, says Glennon, is “more presider than decider.”
Pushback against the Deep State is characteristically negligible. As Glennon says of the judiciary,
A lawsuit on virtually any national security issue is not even going to be heard on the merits…. They are dismissed as political questions, [for] ripeness, mootness, or lack of standing…. [T]he result is that no one gets a day in court.
The court of public opinion is hardly more active. It can’t be; usually it doesn’t know enough. And even when it does, all the yelling in the world will seldom move the TV State to action. The TV State’s role is no longer to reform, but to repackage.
Glennon disavows the suggestion that the inhabitants of the Deep State are villains; he is no conspiracy theorist. But even if our faceless government has the very best of intentions, we still have a bit of a problem.
Perhaps more purely than the TV State, the Deep State runs according to the dictates of “public choice theory,” according to which government actors are no better and no worse than the rest of us, and their own self-interest explains their actions quite sufficiently.
When they are called to account, as occasionally happens, the members of the Deep State know their turf far better than do the members of the TV State. They exaggerate their own importance; they play up both the risks to the public and the great work that their own bureaus are doing; and they are rewarded with more power and new initiatives, at which members of the TV State get to cut ribbons.
If I could add anything to the theory – which is powerful as it stands – I might suggest that a good deal of the Deep State is not invisible. It’s just dead boring. In teaching and learning about this aspect of the Deep State – call it the “Dead-Boring State” – the key problems are rather with generating interest, attaining legibility, and securing comprehension. None are easy.
Why, for example, have zoning regulations proliferated at the local level? Why have rules promulgated by executive agencies come to predominate over Congressional legislation in so many areas? Why do welfare programs proliferate, dozens in number, when a single cash grant to the indigent would be vastly more efficient? The aligned self-interests of faceless bureaucrats and all too visible members of the TV State can perhaps explain nearly all of the Dead-Boring State.
Perhaps. But point to an example of the Dead-Boring State, and people may look at you funny. They’ll wonder why you’re not talking about the TV State or, at best, the more glamorous parts of the Deep State.
Yet the Dead-Boring State is where so much actually gets done. To us. The Dead-Boring State probably governs us more than either of the other two. It rarely gets scrutiny; its incentives rarely change, and then not in response to ideology; the perverse incentives remain under one set of elected leaders after another.
Jason Kuznicki
Jason Kuznicki
Jason Kuznicki is the editor of Cato Unbound
Politicians' Job Is to Be Noticed; the Deep State's Job Is to Be Ignored | Foundation for Economic Education

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The Dransfield Vexatious Case GIA/3037/2011 is the UK leading VEXATIOUS cases and has now exhausted the UK Legal System and now awaits the European Court of Human Rights.
Strangely, Lord Terry Burns and his cronies don't think the Dransfield vexatious case is worth reviewing despite a lot of discussions. According to Christopher Graham Dransfield is a Bad,Sad Madman and according to Dransfield, the ICO are in meltdown and Christopher Graham is a Psychopath.
The Devon County Council are throwing the kitchen sink and thousands of pounds of taxpayers money at Dransfield FOIA. Why?