Hugh Linehan in the Irish Times captures something essential about what Freedom of Information means for public institutions, and that in fact the kind of backwards and forwarding over the precise language of any request is missing the point.
He mentions a fascinating paper written by Nat O’Connor for Tasc, in which he argues that democracy is not just about voting, which is actually the last link in the chain, it is also about tracking, criticising government in between elections too.
To do that well, citizens need access to information on the inside of the machine. Linehan quotes thestory.ie‘s line:
“the backend is the frontend”. Which may sound like jargon, but is actually a fundamental truth. Like all large organisations, the Irish State has been digitising for a long time now, largely for reasons of internal operational efficiency. But this process means that many of its own traditional arguments for restricting public access to information have been (inadvertently) undermined. They’re so 1997.
So why not just make that information publicly available online, rather than subjecting applicants and civil servants to the rigmarole and expense of Freedom of Information applications? And why not do so as quickly as possible?
Why indeed? The NI Water story has been in part about waiting for access to documents we are pretty sure exist, but which they are reluctant to share with us (and other citizens following their own line of enquiry) because they may not show the Department in the best light.
If the back end of the government machine were indeed treated as though it were the front end then whilst it would not guarantee internal hygiene, it would disincentivise more casual departures from good practice. It will be one of the themes I hope to touch on at Avondale on Sunday… (the keynote session is open to all)