Those who embrace scrutiny generally have nothing to hide, and welcome it as a means of giving assurance to the outside world that all is as it should be. Transparency engenders trust.
Those who eschew it, however, are often fearful of what will be revealed. And certainly, resisting scrutiny builds distrust and suspicion. So often, resisting scrutiny is about hiding the indefensible.
Scrutiny is particularly important in public life. The electorate places its implicit trust in those it elects, and scrutiny guarantees that trust is not misplaced.
So what do I mean by scrutiny? Well, it could take the form of a freedom of information (FOI) request to the Government – a simple written request for information – the agenda for a summit, the guest list for an event, the minutes of a meeting. Many organisations, including APIL, ask for such things occasionally to get a feel for how decisions are made and policies formed, what arguments are debated, who contributes to the thinking, what evidence is gathered. They do this to satisfy themselves that the thinking is proportionate, reasonable and balanced. In our case at APIL it helps inform the way we operate as an organisation, what research we carry out and what evidence we collect, how we, in turn, form our policies, and how we work with our members to ensure that they are prepared for a changing environment.
Obviously, if all such information was in the public domain there would be no need to ask, but it isn’t. Freedom of Information requests aren’t generally onerous to deal with – generally a quick e-mail in reply to a request , with an attachment, is all that’s needed. With modern technology, information is readily available at the touch of a button. But I believe unnecessary work is too often created by internal debate within the agency which has been asked to provide information about whether something should be released or not, so making a mountain out of a molehill.
Governments should always be able to justify their decisions, to show that they can provide evidence for their choices. Data and evidence should be used to shape a policy to ensure it will deliver its objectives. Governments tend to fear scrutiny when their decision-making is ideological rather than based on evidence, and they are unable to justify their actions. A Government which has made a good, informed decision will never be scared about providing the evidence. So what are we to make of reports that our Government is considering reducing the so-called ‘burden’ of FOI requests?
The press uses FOI requests as a tool to ensure ministers and civil servants conduct themselves in an ‘above board’ way. Too often, FOI requests show decision-makers in a poor light. Indeed, the MP expenses scandal would have been exposed via FOI requests had it not been overtaken by a leak. This is good investigative journalism through legitimate means.
FOIs aren’t the only thing under threat. Consultations, a well established method of gathering evidence, are now also viewed as a burden, rather than an asset. Consultations take 12 weeks – why? Because it takes time to assimilate evidence and carry out research to prove or disprove a hypothesis. It adds to, rather than inhibits, policy development. Yet the Government has now warned that we should no longer expect 12-week consultations. Is it that policy makers don’t want to wait 12 weeks or is it that they just don’t want to be questioned?
The Government is also considering removing the facility to judicially review (JR) its actions. The recent JR involving Richard Branson is a classic example of why this procedure is vital – the Government had not followed procedure and had made a decision that was fundamentally flawed. No-one enters into a JR lightly – they can typically cost six figures, and the adverse consequences can be huge. A JR is simply a last resort when a Government won’t listen.
Scrutiny shines a light on decision-making and mediates behaviour. Let’s not return to the dark days where decisions were made without impunity behind closed doors. We have too much to lose.