Michael Gove got caught doing it. Now ‘family members / senior advisers’ Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have been found using private emails with another four senior White House staff, including Steve Bannon, also alleged to do the same in what CNN calls a colossal blind spot. But is there really a ‘chilling effect’ on records because of FOI? Does an new Act lead to people not writing things down, using the phone and private emails more and ‘emptying out the archives’?
The negative effect of FOI on policy is a long story, going back to the 1980s in Australia when it was feared FOI would lead to ‘hidden filing’ or ‘post-it-note’ cultures In the UK, Tony Blair claimed in 2010 that FOI had led to more caution over recording decisions, concluding the law was
not practical for government…if you are trying to take a difficult decision and you’re weighing up the pros and cons, you have frank conversations…if those conversations then are put out in a published form …you are going to be very cautious. (Guardian 1/9/2010)
David Cameron also hinted that it was disrupting decision-making and was, as he put it, ‘furring up the arteries of government’. Former Cabinet Sectary Gus O’Donnell claimed it had ‘hamstrung’ government, though when pressed he could only offer three isolated examples-two hypothetical and one based on the coalition negotiations. The claim is also regularly made at local government level. The current UK Information Commissioner, herself an archivist, is taking it sufficiently seriously to push a new legal duty to record.
But is it really happening?
There has been plenty of high profile examples. There’s also some good evidence from Sweden, home of the world’s first FOI –ish law in 1766, that there is what they label an ‘empty archives phenomena’.
But whether it’s happening wholesale across government is another matter. The UK Justice Committee looked into it 2012 but ‘was not able to conclude, with any certainty that a chilling effect has resulted from the FOI Act’. The Chairman of the 2015-2016 UK independent review, that looked into chilling as part of its remit, chairman concluded that he ‘struggled to find is actually cases, clear cut cases, where a lot of information has been released and discussions of the kind … have been damaging’. Research at central government found there was concern and isolated instances but no general trend and for local government there appears to be a few exceptional cases but nothing systematic. Just to make it more complex, in Scotland and England there was some evidence of a positive professionalising effect where staff kept better, more professional records because of FOI. Our own studies found that many officials were more concerned with the consequences of not having a record if their superiors or, even worse, a judge came looking for it.
There are two problems with finding out if any chilling really is happening. The first is the difficulty of proving or disproving it. There’s lots of anecdote but not much hard evidence. By its nature it is very difficult as proving it means proving a negative (i.e. something didn’t happen), and means asking people to admit unprofessional conduct. One study found many comments were jokes or light hearted quips.
Second, it’s also very difficult to prove that any changes are a result of FOI. Isolating and disentangling FOI as the cause of the problem is almost impossible. Fear of leaks, the arrival of new technology, new decision-making styles and the key question of resources all influence how and if records are kept. Concerns over the non-recording of information go back far into the past. As the Justice committee pointed out, the 2004 Butler report raised serious concerns over Tony Blair’s use informal meetings and ‘sofa government’ a year before FOI came into force.
The problem was rather wonderfully summed up during the UK independent review hearings when two ex-Home Secretaries, Michael Howard and Jack Straw, cross-questioned the ‘chilling claiming’ Lord O’Donnell, a former Head of the Civil Service:
LORD HOWARD: Do you have any direct experience of ministers avoiding putting things into writing in order to escape the provisions of the legislation?
LORD O’DONNELL: I mean, in a sense, how could I? Minister A phones Minister B on his mobile phone and I’m not involved in that process at all. That’s what I mean. The whole evidence thing you’re asking for is virtually impossible …
LORD HOWARD: Not at all. You might have suggested to a minister that a meeting’s necessary to discuss a particular decision and you might have been told, ‘No, I don’t think we need one’ and you might be able to form quite a good judgment that that was the reason why the meeting wasn’t taking place. Have you ever come across something like that?
LORD O’DONNELL: Yes, is the short answer, and yes, I’ve had occasions where – I mean, I think the area of contingency planning. You know, I think there are various reasons why ministers are very reluctant to commission planning for outcomes that they do not want to happen.
JACK STRAW: But is that directly related to FoI?
LORD O’DONNELL: That’s a combination of FoI and leaks, let’s be honest.
JACK STRAW: Yes, because I can recall in the early part of the 1997/2000 government, well before FoI was a serious prospect in people’s minds, that there were some ministers who were very reluctant to go in for contingency planning on any basis because they were just reluctant to. It was nothing to do with FoI. (Independent Commission on Freedom of Information 2016a, 84–86)
It is impossible to say if there is or is not an effect. It is likely there is some chilling at the margins and obviously much more skullduggery from politicians than we know of but it is not as widespread as some claim.
The difficulty is that the myth could become reality. If people believe it is happening, are they more likely to do it? The previous Information Commissioner warned that ‘if mandarins keep talking about a chilling effect, theirs is a self-fulfilling prophecy’. But the reassuring thing is that, as with many conspiracies, getting caught can carry a high price-just ask Hillary Clinton.
Ben Worthy is a lecturer in politics based at Birkbeck College, University of London and is author of The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power published by Manchester University Press. You can read chapter 1 here.
Post originally in the IRM Newsletter