Sunday, January 8, 2012

Strange freedoms of information

With all the controversy and plans for action in response to Martin Ferguson's spy-on-the-protesters campaign, I was slightly surprised to see my letter ("Keep us informed") in today's edition of The Sunday Age responding to Farrah Tomazin's excellent report last week, Baillieu's FOI watchdog more like a toothless tiger.

Purely coincidentally, of course, the two issues are strangely linked.

While citizens face great difficulties getting their hands on public interest information to critique government and inform their participation in civil society, our politicians and governments - "influenced" by vested corporate interests - rent private firms and use their own formidable intelligence-gathering machinery to unaccountably gather all kinds of information about citizens against the public interest.

Hence "strange freedoms of information" - we're not free to get the information we need to be good citizens; politicians and government are excessively free in collecting information about us to meet ends too often at odds with the common good.

My letter doesn't appear to be online yet, but here it is as submitted:
I welcome the continuing focus by The Sunday Age on freedom of information under successive Victorian governments (Baillieu's FOI watchdog more like a toothless tiger, Opinion, 1/1).

A functioning society in which government can be held accountable for its actions demands an efficient, independent and transparent gateway to public interest information, not needless barriers to its access. Farrah Tomazin nails the claimed aspirations of the Baillieu government on the former, and paints a damning picture of the latter - a toothless system little improved by the mere appearance of reform.

I would suggest, however, that scrutiny of FOI should not prevent us calling for a significant expansion of the scant information government is obliged to release without citizens needing to request it and then being diverted to a bureaucratic process. To gauge government performance, we shouldn't need to piece together a jigsaw of information variously delayed, fragmented, mediated, obscured or denied.

Instead, government should be called on to develop with civil and public institutions - including unions, not-for-profits and universities - indicators that show how effectively outcomes are being achieved. I mean by this not evidence of bureaucratic outcomes based on economic rationalism, but of the effects policies and programs have on real people, whose voices must also be heard in this process.

At the federal level we have MySchool purporting to represent the performance of schools. At state and federal level might we not call on governments to show their own performance in real time on transparent and collaboratively developed websites that could include, for example, MyHealth, MyJobSecurity, MyCommunity and MyClimate?

We then might better hope for our collective well-being.
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