Leading Article: Whitehall doors stay closed

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The Independent Online
The forbidding doors of Whitehall may have been officially unbolted but ministers seem unconcerned that the public is not streaming through. This is the picture that emerges from the Cabinet Office's first review of the Open Government guidelines, published yesterday. If no improvement is made soon, it will be tempting to conclude that the whole exercise has been a sham.

The Government's initiative, organised last year by William Waldegrave, was meant to let ordinary people discover previously unavailable information ranging from details on their personal social security files to the relative costs of routes for a proposed bypass. Yet, in keeping with its closed traditions, Britain's bureaucracy has effectively subverted the project by the simple act of keeping it virtually secret.

Advertisements for the "Cone Line" may litter motorways. Sensitive details of discussions between the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England are published every month. Yet little or nothing has been done to tell the public how to prise the simplest information from a government department. The £51,000 budget assigned to publicise the Open Government initiative is enough to buy 90 seconds of prime time advertising on television. Not that it has crossed anyone's mind to use modern methods of communication to open up Britain's shadowy processes of government.

Those who have actually heard about their right to information find it extraordinarily difficult to satisfy their curiosity. There is no helpline explaining what to do. As the Independent reports on page 5, there is a tendency for letters to be lost or to go unanswered.

Even if inquiries do reach the right civil servant, there is no guarantee that an answer will be offered. The rights of British citizens are severely limited under the Waldegrave scheme compared with practice in many other Western countries where freedom of information acts secure wide access to official information. Many areas of government here, notably the police, are still beyond the reach of public inquiry. We are entitled to see only data summarised by officials, rather than original documents. Also, a citizen who faces obstruction will encounter a cumbersome appeals system, requiring an MP to sponsor complaints. This is a charter for deterring all but the most hyperactive busybody.

It is, therefore, easy to understand why ministers are diffident about their own project. Each time the Open Government programme is raised, its inadequacies are pilloried: better to stay quiet about it. The initiative has also been handicapped because Mr Waldegrave, its chief supporter, has been moved to a new post. His successor, David Hunt, yesterday declared his satisfaction with the scheme, which has attracted just 2,600 queries during its first eight months in operation. That compares with 7,000 a year in Australia, whose population is a quarter of our own.

Mr Hunt is either naive about how difficult it is to change Whitehall's closed culture or has cynically chosen to let Mr Waldegrave's programme fail. The Open Government initiative should be given a genuine chance by employing effective advertising and making it easier to obtain information. That way, the scheme could be put into full working order as a precursor of the comprehensive Freedom of Information Act that Britain needs.