Tag Archives: privatisation

Public Functions, Private Companies, and Freedom of Information

Should private companies and charities delivering public services be subject to FOI? (Image c/o danbrady on Flickr.)

The following article was sent in by Erin Ferguson, a qualified librarian and doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde Law School. Erin tweets as @fergusonerin.

The recent privatisation of the Royal Mail and scandals involving companies like G4S and Serco have highlighted the ongoing concern over the transfer of public services to the private sector. Privatisation, in this instance defined to include both the sell-off of public assets and the contracting out of public services, has long been a controversial issue. Critics point out that privatisation often fails to meet its objectives, such as improving the quality or reducing the cost of public services. Additionally, there is concern that the delivery of public services is becoming less transparent as private companies are not responsible for responding to requests for information under the Freedom of Information or Freedom of Information (Scotland) Acts.  This post examines these concerns, as well as some of the recent proposals that have been put forward to extend FOI responsibilities.

Both the FOIA and FOISA confer on the public the general right to make requests for information from public bodies, which are listed in Schedule 1 of the Act. The list does not include private companies or charities that are now frequently responsible for the delivery of public serves, and both the Scottish and UK Information Commissioners have expressed concern over the potential for services to become less transparent and accountable. A recent survey by We Own It revealed that the public shares these views, with 88% of respondents indicating that they believe private companies delivering public services should be held to the same transparency requirements as the public sector. This concern is not only about the public’s ability to track the public pound. With 1 in 10 prisons no longer covered by the FOIA, there is concern that reduced transparency will make it difficult to scrutinise the performance of core functions of the state.

The continuing calls to protect transparency have spurred politicians into action. In 2012 Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan announced Labour’s pledge to extend the FOIA to private contractors if successful in the next election. Labour MP Graeme Morris introduced the Freedom of Information (Private Healthcare Companies) Bill in October 2013. The Public Services (Ownership and User Involvement) Bill, sponsored by Green MP Caroline Lucas, had its first reading in Parliament in January 2014. Among the latter private members’ bill’s aims was to make the contracting process more transparent and to extend FOI responsibilities to private contractors. Earlier this month the House of Commons Committee on Public Accounts published a report, in which it was acknowledged that greater transparency in contracting is needed and recommended that extension of the FOI regime be considered.

Last week, Justice Minister Simon Hughes confirmed plans for upcoming consultations on the FOIA. He announced the intended publication of a revised Code of Practice aimed at introducing FOI requirements into the contracts of private companies performing public functions. However, the coalition government has stopped short of actually extended the FOIA to private companies, a move that has been criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. They argue that contractual disclosure provisions defeat the purpose of the FOIA, which was to provide a statutory right of access to information. Indeed, the plans seem reminiscent of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, which was introduced by the Conservative government in 1994 as an alternative to FOI and was subsequently criticised for lacking ‘teeth.’ Whilst the details of the revised Code are still unclear, it is clear that the consultation process will need to consider how to ensure that this is not another missed opportunity to preserve transparency.

The politics of open access

Could opening up publicly funded research result in free R&D for private companies?
(Image c/o Julian Fraser on Flickr.)

Open access to research literature has grown rapidly over the last few years. We are now at a stage where a significant proportion of published research – 50% of journal articles published in 2011 according to one study (Archambault et al. 2013) – is available free to view online. This week is Open Access Week and hundreds of events are taking place around the world. Those of us who have been championing the cause of open access feel like great progress is being made. Perhaps not as fast as we’d like, but we do seem to be moving towards a world where open access is the default. The potential benefits of a culture in which the entire world’s knowledge is available to anyone on the planet with the means to access the internet1 are many, varied, and hard to calculate. But the ideal is one which I, for one, certainly think is worth striving for.

However, there is something that’s been concerning me. Many research funders are beginning to mandate open access for research that they fund (e.g. RCUK (Research Councils UK) [pdf], HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England), and the Wellcome Trust). In other words, if you want to get money from of these bodies in order to fund your research, then the results of the research must be published open access. This is great from an open access advocate’s perspective because it will lead to a much higher percentage of research output being freely available. The current UK government, notably Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, has been a driving force behind these open access mandates in the UK. The working group whose report (Finch Group 2012) contained recommendations which informed the RCUK and HEFCE policies was convened by the government.

This is what causes me concern. This is the same government that has allowed public library funding to be cut drastically, raised tuition fees to absurd levels, and instigated many other policies which shift away from the idea of an inclusive participatory society and towards one in which private capital is the only driving force. So when this government’s agenda aligns perfectly with that of open access advocates, it feels somewhat jarring. I don’t have an answer to assuage this concern but I would like to take this opportunity to begin the search for an answer.

Here is a quote from David Willetts on the recommendations of the Finch Report:

“Removing paywalls that surround taxpayer funded research will have real economic and social benefits. It will allow academics and businesses to develop and commercialise their research more easily and herald a new era of academic discovery.

“This development will provide exciting new opportunities and keep the UK at the forefront of global research to drive innovation and growth.”

(Department for Business, Innovation & Skills 2012)

At first glance this doesn’t appear to be saying anything contrary to standard arguments for open access, but it does have a curious focus on business and profit generation. The academics who are in favour of open access mostly support it because they see access to research as a public good, and also for more self-interested reasons – if everyone can see your work, it can do wonders for your reputation (Swan 2010). If open access has an economic benefit as well then so much the better. To take the government’s stance at face value, it seems to have picked up on this economic aspect and decided to promote open access in order to encourage more rapid innovation and therefore potential more profit made off the back of it, while the social benefits of enhanced access to knowledge remain intact.

It is rarely sensible to take the government’s words only at face value. My knowledge of politics is not sophisticated enough to provide a detailed analysis here, but suffice to say political stances often have an unstated agenda behind them. For example, the rhetoric surrounding changes in the NHS at the moment may talk about benefits for patients, but there is clearly a neoliberal agenda of privatisation which is dominating decision-making. This makes it hard to stop at a shallow reading of comments such as the one from David Willetts quoted above. Could there be a neoliberal agenda behind support for open access which intends to exploit it for purposes antithetical to the ideals of open access supporters?

Could the government be trying to make publicly funded research open, in order for private companies to take this research and commercialise it and generate patents? In other words, state funded research becoming a free R&D department for corporations.

You may think, So what? If the goal of academics is to create an open environment to share the world’s knowledge, what’s the harm in some of this leading to profits for others? By their very nature, the open licenses such as the Creative Commons Attribution License which are recommended for open access publications allow for this possibility. Something to bear in mind here is the way that commercialism and profit generation have been becoming ingrained in higher education in the UK. If universities are required to generate more income from commercialising research results, to make up for reduced funding from central government, then they will be expected to compete with private companies in doing so.

This is where the neoliberal mind might see the advantage of open access. For example, if medical research undertaken at a publicly-funded institution must be published open access, whereas research undertaken by a pharmaceutical company does not, then private corporations are at a distinct advantage when it comes to generating money and patents.

None of this is meant to be interpreted to be a criticism of open access, I just think that it is important to understand the motivations behind the people and institutions that are driving it. I’m not suggesting that I have any answers, but I would like to see other supporters of open access to take a more critical stance when it comes to these issues. We need to keep being positive and highlighting the success stories of open access but not allow ourselves to be blind to political interests that may be at work.

Open access is a global issue and in this article I have been focusing on the situation in the UK. Perhaps an answer to my questions can be found by taking a more international perspective and examining government mandates and policies from countries with differing political environments. I’d be interested to hear from people with knowledge about this.

By Stuart Lawson

Thanks to Martin Eve for a conversation which helped me crystallise some of these ideas.

Notes

1. Of course, there is still a digital divide, and much research literature is only available in one language (often English). Making publications free to access is only a step towards a more equal arena for participation in the generation of knowledge.

References

Archambault et al. 2013. Proportion of Open Access Peer-Reviewed Papers at the European and World Levels—2004-2011. Available at: http://www.science-metrix.com/pdf/SM_EC_OA_Availability_2004-2011.pdf [Accessed: 17 October 2013].

Department for Business, Innovation & Skills. 2012. Government to open up publicly funded research. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-to-open-up-publicly-funded-research [Accessed: 17 October 2013].

Finch Group. 2012. Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications. Report of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings. Available at: http://www.researchinfonet.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Finch-Group-report-FINAL-VERSION.pdf [Accessed: 11 May 2013].

Swan, Alma. 2010. The open access citation advantage: studies and results to date. Available at: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/268516/2/Citation_advantage_paper.pdf [Accessed: 17 October 2013].