Official Secrets and Official Information

Publication Date01 January 1980
AuthorRichard Baker
DOI10.1177/014473948000100503
OFFICIAL SECRETS AND OFFICIAL INFORMATION
-approaches for students and teachers
Richard Baker
The underlying dilemma
Among those things necessary to achieve understanding
of
the real stuff
of
public administration, I would place high on the list a thorough study, both
practical and theoretical,
of
two kinds
of
process which constantly occur in
the everyday world
of
public affairs -though many may regard one or the
other, or both,
as
an unnecessary nuisance. These are:
(1) Opening up "freedom
of
information" to the general public.
(2) Safeguarding certain information
as
confidential or "secret".
These two connected, though contrasting, processes must be very difficult to
deal with in teaching particularly for students without any working experience
of
administration, or its academic or journalistic investigation. They offer
almost indefmite scope for misunderstanding between those inside and those
outside government, in spite of, or because of, the fact that they involve
fundamentals
of
the interactions between them.
This
article offers neither a
catalogue
of
legal and administrative rules and systems, present or proposed,
nor even a full analysis
of
principles.
It
does, however, emphasise a
few
essential elements in the teaching
arid
learning processes. They are offered on
the basis
of
some experience
of
both
administrative practice and also its study
from the outside -academic and (to a mild degree) journalistic.
Now to any individual involved in either or
both
of
these processes (1) and
(2)
on
either side they can involve severe emotional strains. Yet I doubt
if
any
kind
of
government has been or could be carried on without both privacy and
dissemination·
of
information. -Indeed something
of
both seems essential in
most types
of
organisation -even small voluntary societies. Probably, in
teaching, a good deal should be made
of
such analogies; for instance, students
might be invited to discuss how their union committee communicates with
the general membership and whether it needs privacy for any
of
its activities.
The basic need
is
to help the student to become aware
of
the kind
of
factors
and atmosphere with which most experienced journalists and civil servants
are familiar, but which
is
not easily absorbed
by
those having no direct
contract with the processes
of
government. Describing exi$ting and proposed
legal and administrative frameworks and formal provisions
is
only the
beginning.
More
important are the conflicting social and political forces.
Efforts at cool rational analysis and objectivity must be made,
but
the learning
process cannot be entirely ''value-free''. The problem
is
to appreciate the
nature
of
the various, conflicting (but possibly all quite legitimate) values.
Knowledge is power -two perspectives
All this involves at least two perspectives -from outside and inside the public
services. Both those whose experience has been wholly inside and those
whose experience has only been dealing with government from outside may
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