Does privatizing government services require FOIA reform to sustain open government?

I read an editorial on “open government” in the United Kingdom by Nick Cohen today, in which he argues that Prime Minister David Cameron is taking “Britain from daylight into darkness.

20130929-142347.jpgCohen connects privatization to the rise of corporate secrecy and warns of a risk to investigative journalism in the UK posed by expensive law suits from litigious corporations, leading to a negative spiral a more government services are privatized and become less subject to a weakened media’s scrutiny. He paints a dire scenario for press freedom in Britain.

Evgeny Morozov, whose tweet brought the column to my attention, says that “the rhetoric of ‘open government’ conceals: privatization + de-FOIA-zation = less accountability.”

Key Excerpt:

“Public services have always moved from daylight into darkness when private managers take them over. Ever since Labour passed the Freedom of Information Act in 2000, MPs, journalists, bloggers, academics, campaign groups and concerned citizens have been able to examine a prison, say, or medical service up to the moment of privatisation when the possibility of scrutiny vanished.

In one sense, nothing new is happening. But quantitative change can become qualitative if it grows for too long. The scale of the privatisation the coalition is authorising is taking us into a new and more secretive country. If you think that only policy wonks are bothered by these concerns, you should know that freedom of information requests have exposed the police concocting evidence against demonstrators, the strip-searching of children, state nursing homes that were also fire traps and unsafe practices at the Sellafield nuclear power station.”

The piece left me with two questions:

1) Should private entities providing government services be equally transparent to the public?

2) If so, should Parliament (and other legislative bodies around the world) extend Freedom on Information laws to include privatised government services?

The common sense answer to both questions seems to me to be “yes,” although I’m open to hearing why that shouldn’t be done.

Separately, if libel reform has created a threat to investigative journalism in the UK and there is a discernible chilling effect upon the press in that country, both issues should be part of the discussion at the upcoming Open Government Partnership annual conference in London.

[Image Credit: IT World]

One thought on “Does privatizing government services require FOIA reform to sustain open government?

  1. Pingback: OGP, open government, action plan, annual summit, London | Open Government Partnership Blog

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