The illusion of transparency

Since the coalition formed in the spring of last year, transparency has been placed at the heart of government policy.  Or at least, that is what the Cameron government have been keen to put across to the electorate.  It has become a central plank of government policy and the coalition has repeatedly given its commitment to be the most transparent government in the world.

A couple of months ago, Cameron’s chief advisor, Steve Hilton, spoke at the launch of YouGov Cambridge.  Underlining the government’s commitment to the transparency agenda, Hilton said he wanted to turn a Britain of “post code lotteries into a world of post code choices”.  A Britain where crime data was easily and readily available, where negligent doctors were exposed and taxpayers were able to view data about contracts that exceeded budgets.  Essentially, all public services would be made fully open and transparent so taxpayers could make ‘informed’ choices on a range of issues.  So far, so admirable.  But the extent of the transparency agenda leaves a lot to be desired.

Despite expressing the intention to make this government the most transparent (an admirable aim considering the UK government’s historic reputation as being one of the most secretive democracies), there are clearly aspects of government that are excluded from this transparency agenda.  Take the recent storm over the private emails exchanged between Michael Gove and his advisers.  It seems apparent that Gove and his advisers believed that by conducting discussions about sensitive policy issues, such as the school literacy programme, using private emails rather than the official government email address, they would not be subject to Freedom of Information requests and, therefore, provide an opportunity for more candid discussion.

Thankfully, and possibly much to the annoyance of politicians and civil servants, the information commissioner has declared that private emails are subject to freedom of information requests and must therefore be disclosed when a request is made.  This ruling could now be subject to an inquiry by the public administration committee, chaired by Bernard Jenkin MP.  Whilst Jenkin is, according to The Guardian at least, a supporter of the Freedom of Information Act, there are concerns amongst ministers and civil servants that it’s scope is being extended far beyond what they envisaged.  Sir Gus O’Donnell, previously the UK’s top civil servant, is on record as claiming that the Act itself was a ‘mistake’ and it had a ‘negative effect’ on government procedures.  Given Gove’s actions (surely he wouldn’t have used private emails if he thought they would be subject to the Act) it is clear that MPs will be concerned about the commissioner’s ruling.

All this suggests that whilst the government is keen to encourage an environment of transparency around outcomes, they are less concerned with transparent decision-making.  If the government is truly serious about open government, this disparity needs to be addressed.  It is not enough to simply have access to a range of information related to outcomes of government (either national or local) and yet not present the electorate with complete transparency in terms of policy.  For any fully functional democracy it is essential that the electorate have access to information about the workings of government.  Without such access it is difficult for the electorate to put trust in their representatives. As the recent corruption perceptions index has shown, the UK is still some way off the top ten.  The revelations about News International, particularly in relation to Andy Coulson, will also have done much to undermine trust in our elected representatives.  There has certainly been little in the way of transparency in terms of the Prime Minister’s relationship with News International, not to mention the extent of links between Coulson and News International when he was at the heart of government.

Transparency should be at the very heart of government operations, but it should infiltrate every aspect, not just those convenient for politicians and civil servants.  If we truly want to have a fully transparent, effective democracy, we need more information about the operations of ministers and government departments as well as greater accountability and more power in the hands of the electorate to act on the information disclosed.  Only then will we have a truly open and democratic government.  Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the coalition will truly fulfil those ambitions.