Search This Blog

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Public servants play a key role in determining public interest

I like Andrew Podger's well stated wisdom in Public servants serve the public interest,period for Crikey:

"What (Shergold and Moran) advocates of confidentiality and allowing the political process to determine the public interest leave out is the direct responsibility of public servants to act in the public interest in the implementation of policies and in due process more generally, including with regard to the provision of information to the public.

It is public servants who hold the delegations under the FOI Act. The Act requires them to release information unless it is not in the public interest to do so (or unless it comes under specific exemptions). They must judge when the confidentiality of advice to the government, or of information pertaining to that advice, is sufficiently in the public interest to justify non-release of the material. These judgments are not easy. Senator Faulkner, however, has been arguing forcefully that public servants should change their culture of secrecy and give more weight to the public interest in release of information.

I do not for a moment condone leaks by public servants or unauthorised discussions between senior public servants and members of the Opposition. But the limits to confidentiality need to be explored more openly within the public service as it is public servants who have the responsibility to determine the public interest on this issue under the law. Leaving aside responses to requests under the FOI Act, there is much more the public service can do pro-actively to release research and statistics, and give public speeches, and even to talk to the media from time to time, without undermining the public interest in confidentiality."

Given that the public service and ministers often have a vested interest in advice finding its way into the public domain only when it suits, we need a more open debate about how to better protect the public interest in open and accountable government with clearly defined limits on confidentiality. And better laws properly enforced to make it so.

No comments:

Post a comment