Science - June 13, 2013

'Take a look behind the scenes of government'

The Government Information (Public Access) Act (WOB) should be abolished, says National Ombudsman Alex Brenninkmeijer. Brenninkmeijer thinks all government information should be public unless there are reasons for keeping it confidential. Bernd van der Meulen, professor of Law and Governance, drew up a bill for a modernized WOB back in 2006.

Do you agree with the Ombudsman's statements?
'Yes and no. I agree with him that we could make some big improvements in our culture of openness. But this proposal sounds to me like "let's get rid of the red and yellow cards and all play football like gentlemen". Brenninkmeijer thinks the government should behave decently. But there should also be instruments that let you do something if the government does not behave decently.'
The current WOB already says that government information is 'public unless...' Apparently this isn't working in practice.
'The Netherlands has quite a high degree of openness. But of course we focus on the problems. Some information is sensitive or concerns something that went wrong in government. Then requests are refused for what may or may not be good reasons and that can end in clashes.'
In what respects is your updated WOB better?
'It has a wider scope. After all, the government doesn't just govern, it is also a legislative body and it dispenses justice. Everything that is funded by public money should be covered by the WOB. Society should know how and why money is being spent. In addition, there are certain topics such as national security where information is confidential by definition. I want an end to "by definition". You should always weigh up the arguments.'
Not everyone agrees with you. When Piet Hein Donner was Minister of the Interior, he said that laws are like sausages - it's better if you don't see how they are made.
'A Victorian attitude. You also need to look behind the scenes of government and do hygiene checks, and open kitchens are hygienic kitchens.'   

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