Making Power Speak: The Power of Freedom of Information from a Practitioner’s View
27 Pages Posted: 7 Nov 2011
Date Written: November 6, 2011
This paper explores the idea of accountability from the view of a practitioner within the United Kingdom Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Privacy and openness intersect with accountability for local government within the central government’s transparency agenda. The underlying belief is that increased openness will lead to increased accountability. Yet, in many cases, organisations are opaque to themselves and the public. In that sense, the FOIA has only created a pinhole to view inside the organisation. What the transparency agenda may yet do is open up the blinds. I argue that accountability depends much on organisational culture as it does the wider political culture. In that sense, access to information may not lead to greater accountability because the public are excluded from the political process. I explore this idea through the duality of public and private within republican political theory and suggest that active citizenship is required for transparency to create accountability, which is lacking within a constitutional monarchy.
The main theme is explored through three questions. How uncertainty over information rights undermines accountability. For example, applicants unaware of their rights lack the skill and knowledge to appeal or challenge an authority. How the dialectic of disclosure plays out when one has to balance the legislation between an organisational privacy and public accountability. For example, practitioners have to balance the privacy against accountability because what may have once been accessible may now be classified as private. The privacy rights of organisations, as a human right, heighten that tension. [See Veolia v Nottinghamshire CC  EWCA 1214] Finally, how organisational silence can delay and thereby deny accountability. For example, the discourse of accountability assumes that transparency leads to trust. Yet, accountability based upon transparency carried out opaquely undermines that trust.
Keywords: transparency, FOIA, freedom of information, republicanism, United Kingdom, local government, accountability
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