Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Book Review:Richard A. Chapman and Michael Hunt (eds.), Open Government in a Theoretical and Practical Context (2006)

Book Review
Richard A. Chapman and Michael Hunt (eds.), Open Government in a Theoretical and Practical Context (2006)
This book deals with a theoretical and practical context of the British FOI legislation. It seems to answer the extent to the potential benefits can be realized in practice. One strong feeling is that although various potential benefits of the British FOI legislation can be envisaged, these benefits could not bear out easily and automatically in the process of implementation. Many papers in this book were presented at the Public Administration Committee Research Workshop on Freedom of Information, which was held in St Aidan’s College, Durham University from 4 to 6 April 2005. It is a timely contribution to clarify the conflict between theoretical and practical context of FOI after the implementation of the UK FOI legislation for three months.
Ten potential benefits of FOI are mainly described by James’ paper. Some benefits are easy to achieve from the author’s observation. FOI can result in greater transparency as the British FOI legislation is working, although it is not automatically implemented by the authorities. FOI can safeguard probity, promote rationality in decision-making and increase public servants’ sense of accountability to the public. The effectiveness of the media can be increased as FOI gives the media new opportunities for serious investigative reporting. Citizens and organizations to assert their rights are allowed by FOI legislation. Such legislation can be usually used by citizens to assert other rights against public authorities, or to further their own interests.
It appears that despite other benefits of FOI can be presumed, the author at the same time is concerned about their realization. First, the benefit of encouraging public participation in government is suspicious as FOI does not necessarily mean that the public is able easily to influence public decisions. Meanwhile, disclosure or consultation will diminish the effectiveness of most public decisions which need to operate to a fairly short timescale. Second, the effect of raising public confidence in the processes of government is difficult to achieve by only a piece of FOI legislation. Third, FOI can increase the effectiveness of administration should be treated with caution as the quality of records kept by an organization is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of its effectiveness. In addition, the habits of caution still exist after the introduction of FOI legislation as civil servants are careful not to say things they cannot justify. Fourth, the culture of the public service can be altered by FOI is hard to achieve as culture change is difficult to discern.
Other contributors also express their concerns about the realization of some potential benefits of FOI. Lord Goodhart observes the downside to FOI, including the tendency to remain more information unrecorded form and too much information being released.
Chapman and Hunt suspect that culture of openness could not be achieved by only a piece of FOI legislation. One reason is administrative culture is influenced by many factors, including ministerial responsibility, tradition, the practical requirements of the Official Secret Acts, and socialisation within the administrative system. The change of culture may be hard to achieve without the changes of the whole system. The other reason is the weaknesses of FOI legislation itself. Several government agencies are explicitly excluded from the scope of FOI legislation and many exemptions can be found the frame of FOI legislation. Moreover, Ministers have a veto to override a decision of the Information Commissioner which is contrary to the original intention of that public authority. These weaknesses are also observed by Hunt and Chapman’s paper, Lord Goodhart and Michael ones. Chapman and Hunt finally suggest that cultural change in British public administration is most likely to be achieved by action in all the aspects of government affecting the administrative culture, including pressures from outside the administrative system. Citizens have their part to play as well as elected representatives and officials.
Hunt’s another paper observes that the full use of FOI legislation by the public will be hindered by mainly five factors, including low public awareness, the irrelevance of information available, time available, various exemptions and the increasing practice of contracting out public services.
The British Committee on Standards in Public Life asserts that openness can be used to increase the worryingly low level public trust of politicians in the UK. However, public attitudes about politicians are unlikely to change without the transformation in the tone of public debate and acknowledgement from politicians that many public policy issues and the way that this debate is represented by the media.
Taylor et al argue that electronic government increases sharing data regarding inter-agency working and intermediaries’ enhanced services and enable to provide personalization of online public services to citizens by government agencies through, for example, the personalization of public websites. However, the concept of layered citizenship arises when the government runs the Gateway project to provide one-stop electronic services. More personal information is captured by government agencies which enable them to classify or sort citizens into some groups for providing personalize service. As a result, the building of citizen trust profiles, personalization and forms of social sorting for conventional e-government services or security reasons challenge the nature of citizenship. The challenge not only comes from the concept of glass citizens who can enjoy the conventional public services at the cost of privacy as they can easily be monitored and scrutinized through digital transaction records, but also from sovereign citizens who are self-directing and easily organize, travel to and deploy forms of terrorism beyond the purview of the individual nation state. Finally, the author argued that an effective freedom of information legislation must consider the new developments of electronic government and provides a clear normative view of citizenship. In the information polity, the status of information flow the relationships between departments of government, between government and other agencies including voluntary and private sector bodies, between administrator and politicians, and between the governmental system and the citizen are changed. Many questions can be deduced from this change and it deserves further research.."> " title="permanent link">#

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