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New rights to access, but for most transparency is still as clear as mud

Two weeks after new public access rules came in under the UK Freedom of Information Act, precisely what is meant by transparency is still not clear or easily understood, according to leading academics and experts at the launch of the ESRC Public Services Programme at the British Academy.

Administrations in other countries - Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland - have failed to deliver on the openness promised with similar legislation, says Alasdair Roberts, a Canadian freedom of information specialist and associate professor at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University in the United States.

Instead, they have developed elaborate systems for managing sensitive requests for information.

And he says there is evidence to suggest that officials in the UK are similarly putting in place controls to ensure that ministers here are not tripped up by questions from MPs and journalists.

Alasdair Roberts will be among the speakers at the workshop being held on Friday (January 14) at the British Academy in London.

The aim of the research programme Director, Christopher Hood, Gladstone Professor of Government and Fellow of All Souls, University of Oxford, is a full and frank examination of transparency and its consequences. According to Alasdair Roberts, there are ways of dealing with the worst effects of governments developing procedures to handle sensitive inquiries.

The first is to force officials to commit their procedures to paper, so making them vulnerable to disclosure. The second is by using the information commissioner. Too often, in other countries, he says, commissioners have treated all requests for information in the same way, whereas, in reality, governments routinely discriminate against sensitive inquiries from MPs and journalists. He says that commissioners should similarly give special rapid responses to complaints about delay or obstruction.

Christopher Hood said: "Transparency is regarded as a
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Contact: Becky Gammon
becky.gammon@esrc.ac.uk
44-179-341-3122
Economic & Social Research Council
13-Jan-2005


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