Artificial Intelligence, innovative use of data and the arms industry – now there’s a bunch of areas you’d want oversight on. And yet, a high-profile new government research agency appears to have been absolved from the obligations of public scrutiny before it even begins work.
News broke this week that the treasury has authorised £800 million of funding over the next four years for the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA). This research agency was originally conceived by Dominic Cummings, and, according to the 2019 Conservative manifesto, will be producing “high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government”.
More explicitly, The Guardian sees the agency very much working in the area of defence, while also noting that many technologies developed in this area have gone on to benefit society more widely. The BBC says ARIA has been inspired by US agency DARPA, which is “credited with funding the development of the internet and GPS”.
All well and good, perhaps, until you see the government’s assertion that “the new body is being set up so it can take fast, agile decisions without bureaucracy.”
Judging by multiple press reports and a comment from Ed Milliband, although the agency is to be funded by taxpayers’ money it will be exempt from Freedom of Information law. While we very much hope this is not the case, this aspect has been reported by several sources.
FOI is explicitly for the purpose of allowing citizens to demand transparency from the institutions which we fund. The Times, reporting this story, also takes a moment to remind readers that it, along with other major news outlets — not to mention organisations including mySociety — is calling for urgent action on declining levels of governmental transparency, and we can see from the ICO’s many notices to Whitehall departments that the current administration are not complying with their obligations.
Our friends at the Campaign for FOI point out that DARPA, the blueprint for ARIA, is in fact subject to the US FOI Act, so removing those obligations would be something that has been built in as part of ARIA’s conception:
This new taxpayer funded body must not be exempt from #FOI. The Act has an exemption to protect commercial interests. The US agency, DARPA, on which it is modelled is subject to FOIA. So ministers have no basis for claiming FOI would give rivals an unfair competitive advantage. https://t.co/Ch4Spnp91S
— Campaign for Freedom of Information (@CampaignFoI) February 17, 2021
Additionally, the WhatDoTheyKnow team point out that any authority wholly owned by the public sector is subject to FOI unless specific provision is made to exclude it — and so, dodging the obligations of the Act would require either setting up an opaque operating structure for that purpose, or a new exemption to be passed into law under the FoIA.
Meanwhile, our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow does list authorities that are not subject to FOI if there is a good argument that they should be. If indeed it is officially exempted from the Act, we will also take this route with ARIA, just as soon as it formally comes into being.
EDIT: The official government press release is now here, and includes the statement: “Central to the agency will be its ability to deliver funding to the UK’s most pioneering researchers flexibly and at speed, in a way that best supports their work and avoids unnecessary bureaucracy.”
Image: Kevin Ku