FOI and eyes wide shut: even public servants want to know

Security clearance creep and weakened freedom of information does not help public trust in government, argues researcher Suelette Dreyfus. Even top public servants, when kept in the dark, will try to take a peek.

This is an expanded version of the address that Dr Suelette Dreyfus gave to the ANZSOG annual conference on transparency and engagement in the information age, following an address by Andrew Metcalfe, in Melbourne on August 5, 2015.

This room is full of Australia’s most senior public servants. You make decisions about the lives of ordinary Australian every day. My panel colleague former Commonwealth departmental secretary Andrew Metcalfe made the case for less FOI access in his speech, particularly for the communications between senior executives and a Minister. I am not going to make the case for the same level of FOI access.

I’m going to put the case for more FOI access. “Is it really OK for the public service to want “to know” – to get to peek – but to ask the public not to do the same?”

Andrew took a straw poll of the almost 300 people in this room. First he asked every audience member to shut their eyes, because what he was asking was sensitive. He wanted a show of hands for how many senior public servants had been asked by a Minister, staff or colleague not to put major policy or administrative issues into writing because they might be FOI’d. I counted a bit over a dozen hands go up in response to his question. Then he asked secondly if anyone ever held back in providing the full range of issues because the materials might go into the public domain. Three people put their hands up. In other words, about one in a hundred.

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