Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Open Access to Information

Members of any organisation or wider social grouping can only secure the other key elements of synetopia such as learning through educative collaboration and testing claims and assumptions, or formulating their shared mission and establishing who should do what on particular terms, if they can access the relevant information without hindrance.

There are usually four types of reason offered to block any request for information. [1] it would be too costly in terms of time and/or money to provide the information. [2] it is private information that should not be made public. [3] the information should be censored because it is misleading or offensive. [4] the information needs to be kept secret as otherwise it could lead to undesirable consequences in the wrong hands.

Within any organisation, any information produced, gathered, or acquired by it should be available to its members. Technology has rendered previous excuses relating to the difficulties of searching for and sharing such information largely redundant. But there may be information not yet possessed by the organisation that can have a bearing on its decisions. The organisation must in such cases have a process for considering and agreeing what additional information to purchase (if that is possible) or explore through a research project. At a societal level, a free library service is therefore essential for all citizens to access information that has been produced; and a university-based research service that will investigate matters of concern to citizens in general (and not just commercial sponsors) and make its findings public must be safeguarded.

But not all information generated or held by the individual members of an organisation necessarily belongs to that organisation. And rules on matters such as privacy and patent acquisition will need to comply with mutuality and agreed through participatory decision-making so what is shareable, and on what terms, is settled on the basis of what is overall acceptable to the organisation and its members.

As for the censorship and secrecy arguments, there are certainly cases where limits on information circulation are necessary to prevent harm, but the onus must be on those who want to block particular information to justify their position.

It is not enough to say that an information is false or misleading to withhold it. With the help of educative collaboration, and the commitment to test claims and assumptions, the veracity of any serious assertion should be checked, and where appropriate, its lack of evidential support or untenable logic should be made known. For example, it should be explained why a ‘miracle cure’ is baseless rather than forbid any reference to it when that may generate misguided interest in it.

Regarding information which is problematic because it is alleged that it can cause harm to those receiving it, or to others as a result of it becoming misused, it calls for scrutiny arrangements that will take into account the balance of harm between disclosure and restriction for the parties directly involved, and the impact on the organisation in the longer term.

It will be necessary to have in place a plurality of scrutiny bodies that are independent of those with executive authority to regulate information flow. Between them they can take on particular roles in assessing the potential harm, the implications for different information gathering and dissemination processes, and the intent and probable impact of permitting/forbidding the information in question. The consequences, for example, of some group set up to promote prejudices being offended by information about tolerance and mutual respect, are qualitatively different from those of people offended/intimidated by information that hatemongers may want to circulate to stir up social tension.

The presumption in favour of open access to information has to be reviewed by those with executive authority, who in turn must be kept in check by robust scrutiny bodies. And to ensure the scrutinisers act responsibly, they too must be held accountable for their actions in line with the accountability element of the synetopia model.

Checklist of Appraisal Questions:
How reliable are the communication channels in place to facilitate inspection, audit, whistleblowing, peer review to keep wrongdoing at bay?
How easy is it for members to discover and access relevant and accurate information about the group’s past performance and future options?
Are there signs that many suspect systematic or reactive shielding of irresponsible actions?
Is there unjustifiable refusal or obstruction to members seeking to find out more about what has been done in the group and why?

[For a complete list of essays covering the 9 ‘SYNETOPIA’ elements, look up ‘Guide to Synetopia’]