On reform

Back in March 2011, just as the new government came in, I blogged about the programme for government.

…I trust not the words of politicians, but their actions. I will be closely watching how things are done, and indeed if necessary lobbying for greater transparency or changes to proposed legislation where I think such changes are flawed, or do not go far enough.

That scepticism, it turns out, was well placed. Now I take into account that no new government, no matter how well intentioned, can achieve legislative reform within the 14 months since March 2011. But could they have done more? Definitely.

Let’s take one example, which clearly is the focus of this blog, The Freedom of Information Act. The Programme for Government promised:

We will legislate to restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was undermined by the outgoing Government, and we will extend its remit to other public bodies including the administrative side of the Garda Síochána, subject to security exceptions.

Including:

We will amend the Official Secrets Act, retaining a criminal sanction only for breaches which involve a serious threat to the vital interests of the state.

The first thing the government set about doing was establishing the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This Department, headed by Brendan Howlin, would take over responsibility for the FOI Act from the Department of Finance. So let’s focus on the core promises of reform promised by Howlin:

  • We will legislate to restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was undermined by the outgoing Government
  • We will extend its remit to other public bodies including the administrative side of the Garda Síochána
  • While I understand that some 14 months later the Minister has a Heads of Bill drafted (that he doesn’t seem to have consulted civil society on at all) it seems a bit odd we have waited this long. Now Mr Howlin might retort that he wants to bring substantial reform via an FOI amendment, and that takes time, and he may have a point. But there is also this. Both of the precise reforms he has mentioned, and has mentioned persistently in PQs since March 2011, could be achieved without amendment at all.

    If Howlin wanted to remove the fees and reduce them to zero, all that is required is a signature. Back in 2003 when the fees were introduced it was done using a Statutory Instrument (SI 264/2003). All that is needed is:

    1) Copy and paste SI 264/2003
    2) Where a euro figure is mentioned change it to €0
    3) Sign it

    Job done.

    Next on the prescribed bodies. What about:

    1) Copy and paste any of the dozen or more SIs where the Minister has the power to add bodies as prescribed under the Act
    2) Add a list of bodies such as the NTMA, the Central Bank, etc.
    3) Sign it

    Job done.

    Total time taken, probably less than 10 minutes. Total time it’s taken thus far: 14 months. And of course once the 10 minutes are up, you could spend the next 15 months drafting a new Bill to radically improve FOI overall, or bring in other legislation that was promised, like amending or repealing the Official Secrets Act, or Whistleblowers and Lobbying legislation. (I do appreciate it is a little more complicated than this, but not much).

    3 thoughts on “On reform”

    1. Very well put together Gavin. Hard hitting and more than a little embarrassing for Howling that he hasn’t been able to do the 10 minutes work you’ve described in the past 14 months.

      I guess he’s facing resistance from the permanent government.

    2. Thanks Gavin. Your approach to open governence is exactly what Irish civil society needs. It strikes me that several new forms of public accountability can be erected using internet tools.

      For example, new structures to replace the spurious accountability provided by the Law Society. I note that you tried to make sense of a Blackhall database of disciplinary decisions. However, their data is weak, incomplete, hidden and lacks coherence. All most likely by design.

      The new Regulator should be able to source solid, up to date information and using digital tools and skills such as you exhibit….. engage in the very simple process known as name and shame- to good effect by means of a strict public interest focus.

      All of those in the legal profession who have no reason to conduct themselves shamefully might even welcome this model of efficient oversight? As would the taxpayer.

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