UK information commissioner Christoper Graham has called the government’s commitment to transparency into question during a parliamentary inquiry into the Freedom of Information Act.
Graham told the Justice Select Committee that the government’s vocal support for open data is not matched by a willingness to co-operate with Freedom of Information requests.
"I find it rather difficult to square all the talk about openness and transparency with a slightly grudging approach to the mechanics of the Freedom of Information Act," he told the committee. "There really is a gap between the rhetoric of openness and the reality of reluctance."
Graham also questioned whether it is appropriate for the government itself to decide how transparency works. There is "a problem with the suggestion that everything has got to be on the authorities’ terms", he said.
He added the use of unofficial communication channels between minister and advisers "could become quite serious". Last week, the ICO ruled that emails between education secretary Michael Gove and his advisors via personal email accounts should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act, as they concern government business.
Earlier this month, prime minister David Cameron told another committee he believes publishing government data sets is a more appropriate form of government transparency than ad-hoc requests via FOI.
"Publication of information is better than the discovery process which I think does fur up the arteries on occasions," Cameron said. "It seems to me that real freedom of information is the money that goes in and the results that come out."
Sir Gus O’Donnell, who stepped down as Cabinet Secretary earlier this year, has also criticised the Act. He told the Times newspaper that the Act "reduces the quality of our governance" by preventing civil servants from being candid in internal documents for fear that they might be published.
In his memoirs, former prime Tony Blair expressed his regret at introducing the FOIA. "I quake at the imbecility of it," he wrote.
Open data campaigner Chris Taggart told Information Age that the cost of transparency is a small price to pay for a "fair and innovative society".
"There may be small costs in providing an effective Freedom of Information regime, and there may be small costs to make sure that the core reference data is open and free for use for all," Taggart said in an email. "But there’s also a cost to having a fair legal system, and a cost for other core infrastructure – roads, street lights, police. In this world power comes from the ability to access and reuse data."