A recent request for a release of a 2016 government exercise ‘Exercise Cygnus’ was made by a UK by an NHS doctor. The request was a Freedom of Information request and was refused; the doctor is now taking the government to court over this; time will tell as to whether or not the government is forced to disclose the details of the report. In this specific example, ‘Cygnus’ concerned the the ability of the country to react in the case of a sever flu pandemic – a situation not without parallels to the current medical crisis although the subject matter of the report is not the theme of this article.
What I fail to understand is why such disclosures even have to be requested. Why is it that the default position in a democracy is that information is not automatically disclosed? I would argue that in a democracy, citizens have a right to know everything all the time: I would even say that is it obligatory for any democracy to function.
The basic premise of a democracy is that the people are the ultimate authority, and that such authority is exercised through a system of voting. In many ‘democracies’ that exist today, a system of voting enables citizens to indicate by whom they wish to be represented for the given electoral period. In practice this means that the citizens of any system invariably vote to select those who will be responsible for managing the nation for the next several years.
Yet on what criteria can such a decision be made? How does the electorate decide?
In circumstances where a particular policy or governmental activity has a stated measurable goal, then it is conceivable that an empirical performance evaluation can be made. Such measurement however is not always possible – notably where such actions and decisions are based on political judgements or doctrine. These decisions cannot be measured empirically and their success can only be determined subjectively by each individual. Yet even in this second example, and even despite the lack of quantifiable measures one factor remains necessary and consistent in order for any decision making process to be made: the availability of information.
An assessment of quantifiable action requires that a baseline be established and that future performance data is identified and declared. Similarly, the evaluation of a qualitative action also demands that an initial intention and baseline be identified and that any future state also be identifiable. It follows therefore, that information is a prerequisite for any judgement to be made (objective or otherwise).
Decisions, even those of faith which require little if anything in the way of concrete proof require that these information points be made available – even if they are unverifiable empirically. In this manner, it is clear that an electorate can only decide by whom they wish to be represented according to the available data. Data that is not available cannot inform an individual’s decision making process. If we combine the ideal of democracy – that of the electorate holding the ultimate authority, and the logical position that information is needed for decisions; it is clear that this ‘ultimate authority’ cannot be aspired to without in the absence of information being provided. True democracy therefore can only be achieved in an environment which provides allows the electorate access to information on which to base their decisions.
The logical conclusion of this argument is that true democracy is entirely dependent upon the a total freedom of information from the governing bodies. An electorate can only exercise its authority over the information which is provided; therefore anything less that total availability reduces the authority of the electorate.
Without the voters being able to read reports such as ‘Exercise Cygnus’, they are unable to make an informed decision concerning the performance of their representatives in those situations – and hence they are disenfranchised from their ‘authority’.
If I vote for someone, and that person’s decisions result in the death of several tens of thousands of people then I can legitimately hold that person to account for their decisions. If however, that person had previously made a decision to take the risk that a pandemic would not arise and I was aware of this (or could have been) before I voted for them, then the responsibility for my vote is mine.
In terms of today, present information would appear to indicate that the UK government was (but the voters were not) aware of the risks of the government’s actions in not fully preparing for a situation such as the current health crisis faced by us all. In which case, as an uniformed party, the voting public cannot shoulder the responsibility for what transpires, and they have been actively prevented from making an informed decision by a government which withheld information pertaining to their ‘democratic’ choices from them.
Even if it is true that not everyone would choose to inform themselves about such decisions, and even if there are some which individually do not feel competent to analyse the impacts of such decisions; the fact remains that such an analysis is impossible without the information being made available.
Simply put, governments do not have the right to withhold information from their people whilst maintaining any pretence to democracy. The right to publish information should not be a governmental choice, it should be a de facto part of any democratic government’s administration: information should be published fully and immediately, and should be available to all.