Forbidden fruit

Let me tell you a story from Northern Jutland, a Danish province between North Sea and Baltic Sea – when you go to the beach of Skagen you can see the two Seas meet.

Now why a story from Northern Jutland, when this blog-post really is about a recent seminar  held by the European Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros? The Brussels buzz word is best practice. Or simply a good and maybe surprising experience.

Some years ago, an informal network of journalists and officials in that Northern part of Denmark got together to address questions of transparency. They were united by the commitment to good administrative and democratic practice. And not least they were committed to finding pragmatic solutions that simply would make life easier for everybody involved.

Journalists had been eager to get more information from the regional authorities, politicians and officials feared more work. However they agreed on a pilot project, where the list of all in- and outgoing mail would be available online.

What I find striking was the positive amazement, with which politicians evaluated the project.

“In the beginning we were reluctant,” remembers Orla Hav,  today a Danish MP for the Social Democrats and at the time of the pilot project leader of the Region of Northern Jutland.

“We were sceptical. I think it’s always like that for decision makers. When suddenly you enable someone to ask you questions, you do let go of some power,” he observers. Also there were considerations, whether the pilot project would cost a lot of extra work.

The work load turned out not to be a problem at all – the mail had to be dealt with and archived anyway, and now it was done electronically.

But more importantly: The regional decision makers and the journalists stopped fighting about documents and started talking politics.

“Seen from the point of view of a politician, it was helpful not to be met with suspicion that we were withholding information. We could talk about the cases instead of the access, so we moved ahead to a political discussion,” he remembers.

Still today the region of Northern Jutland publishes in- and outgoing mail in a searchable, online database. The content of the letters is not disclosed, but they are registered and a contact person in the administration is mentioned including name and e-mail.

In Brussels a similar model exists too: The representation of Norway – across the road from the European Commission on Rue Froissart – publishes open mail lists and has done so since 2005. At home Norway is preparing a model, which will grant electronic access to all documents following to the usual access to document rules.

Transparency problems are “by far the most common” issue, the Ombudsman has to address. Last years’ report told that 36 percent of his cases concerned “refusal of information or documents”.

I know that transparency is a difficult thing in the EU administration – simply because there is such a strong clash of administrative cultures.

In the Nordic countries we have a deeply rooted tradition that – of course – the public has a right to know what our government and our regional and local authorities do. After all we keep them running with our tax-money to fulfil the tasks, we have delegated to them. In other countries of the EU freedom of information is hardly known at all. Officials are educated to protect the administration from intrusive public curiosity.

Both traditions have their history, and of course if an official is educated in one tradition or the other, this will have an effect on how she or he administrates the EU legislation on access to documents. Yet – we do have a regulation on access to documents. This means, that we have to overcome the individual misunderstandings or lacking knowledge that may still hamper the fulfilment of the regulation. It is embarrassing that still far too many cases on the desk of the European Ombudsman concern transparency and access to documents and information.

For his seminar the Ombudsman had invited an interesting panel. It was an honour to sit next to Maros Sevcovic, the vice president of the European Commission, and to share the panel with Pat Cox, the former president of the European Parliament. Also small businesses were represented and the NGO world, I was on the panel to speak about journalists’ needs.

On the way out of the seminar, Pat Cox compared, jokingly, the struggle for documents to the longing for forbidden fruit. Forbidden fruit that so often seem so much more tempting just because they are forbidden.

Indeed it is a typical reaction among journalists: If information is hidden away, we believe there must be a reason to hide it – in other words we smell a good story. Good journalistic stories include conflict. But wouldn’t it be a great signal to avoid conflict stories about lacking transparency? Instead we then could focus on the political playing field and on the content of policies!

Let’s stop fighting about information. That’ll allow journalists to focus on politics and on real problems, that are in the mutual interest to be addressed.