I like Michael Gove: like Eric Pickles, he keeps happy 1980s memories of Spitting Image alive just by having a face that, even in repose, looks like a caricature. But Mr. Gove has, as described in Chris Cook’s story in the Financial Times, apparently presides over a wrong-headed approach to FOI that shows once again that politicians and their henchmen would do well to learn how the damn thing works, if only to get around it properly.
As you no doubt know, the FT (http://www.ft.com/home/uk and register yourself) reports a series of emails showing Gove and assorted Spads resorting to Gmail to get around the embrace of FOI requests. Slytherin House immediately loses ten points even if the Department’s retort that Gmail was used only for political emails is true. Truly political emails (about party political matters) would probably be outside the scope of FOI and could be sent on the DoE system anyway. It’s what the emails were about that matters, not where they were, a situation which works both ways.
I don’t know which is worse – the apparent inability to accept the discipline that an inherently mobile and insecure mode of communication like email requires, or the ignorance of how FOI actually works. One of the ways in which an organisation can easily snooker itself under FOI is to see the information it ‘holds’ as being the stuff in the corporate email system, the formal files, the official record. FOI is much more slippery than that. It covers the post-it note, the pile of papers at home, the work-related email sent from your personal account. And if an organisation responds to an FOI with ‘not held’, and someone knows that emails or other information exists even in a non corporate system, it’s possible that a criminal offence has been committed.
Dorothy Parker said that love is like quicksilver in the hand. Leave the fingers open and it stays. Clutch it, and it darts away. Email can be the same – the more you try to keep it secret, the more the recipients know they’ve got something working having and worth leaking. Look at the nudge-nudge-wink-wink emails that the FT is getting such good material from today. People in Government need to understand that FOI exists and it gets everywhere. They should respond to this by more mature, better-informed decision-making, and correspondence framed in a professional manner that stands up scrutiny.
But if that’s too much for them, can’t they at least get better at hiding their secrets? Ever keen to assist, I end on five suggestions for better FOI evasion:
1) Stop governing at all – Belgium hasn’t had a government for more than 460 days, and they’re still brewing the best beer in the world. You’ve got nothing to hide if you’re not doing anything.
2) Roald Dahl wrote a wonderful story in which a frozen leg of lamb was used as a murder weapon, then fed to the detective investigating the killing. So take a leaf out of his book – write all of your most incriminating thoughts in piped jam on toast. The recipient reads the message, then eats the toast.
3) Mission Impossible style exploding tapes (remember to switch off the smoke alarms)
4) Write all government communications in Esperanto (bona mateno to all Esperanto speakers!)
5) Mime – it’s the future