Government and the management of information 1844-2009

Vincent, David (2011). Government and the management of information 1844-2009. In: Gunn, Simon and Vernon, James eds. The Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain. Berkeley Series in British Studies. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, USA and London, UK: University of California Press, pp. 165–181.



This chapter examines the management of public information since 1844 in the light of Pat Joyce’s engagement with liberalism not as a set of principles but as a culture and practice of governance embodied in the lives of citizens over time. It moves between contemporary debates over the application of the 2000 Freedom of Information Act and the sequence of modernisation and reform which accompanied the growth of the modern bureaucratic state since the Great Reform Act. It uses the issue of public secrecy to stress three dimensions of the debates inherent in Pat’s endeavour: firstly the question of whether the transparency invoked by commentators from Bentham to the current Information Commissioner is the inevitable concomitant of the liberal enterprise; secondly the extent to which the opposition between formal legal constraints and informal cultural discipline is not given but always negotiated and unstable; and thirdly the sheer instability of the liberal compromises and their constant exposure to challenge and reformulation. The paper endorses Nick Rose’s observation ‘links between the political apparatus and the activities of governing are less stable and durable than often suggested: they are tenuous reversible, heterogeneous.’ It concludes that after a prolonged period of decline in the nineteenth century settlement of the management of official information, what is now being attempted is a kind of reversal. Rather than the values and traditions of a governing elite standing in for formal regulation and justifying its absence, now a complex formal bureaucracy is attempting to create the conditions within which a new or revived set of ethical standards can flourish. Critics of reform have tended to overlook the significance of the construction of a new kind of administrative infrastructure to police the flow of information. The Information Commissioner now runs an office of 270 staff which oversees no less than 115,000 public bodies covering not only central government but also schools, universities, health trusts, local councils and the police. The changes reflect the transformation of what is meant by the public sector, and in particular the changing balance between the central bureaucracy and the manifold local institutions which impact directly on the lives of citizens.

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