All governments need their feet held to the fire…but they choose how close to hold them

Last week, The Telegraph published an article by Francis Maude arguing that “transparency is tough but necessary.”  Not much to argue with there unless, of course, you are on of those whose feet are being held to the fire.  Maude’s argument starts to turn a little hard to stomach very early on, the second paragraph in to be precise.  Maude writes:

Transparency is risky, difficult and uncomfortable for governments – it also sticks. Once you start, you can’t go back. This government has put transparency at the heart of its agenda. As the new lead chairman of the Open Government Partnership, we will promote transparency all over the world. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s hard to take this sentiment seriously when put in the context of this government’s actual record on transparency.  From the NHS to the Olympics, this government has done very little to further the transparency agenda.  If the government is claiming that it is putting “transparency at the heart of its agenda”, then it has no heart (but then we knew this already…).  Ludicrous as Maude’s words felt at the time, events around it only highlighted the emptiness of the Paymaster General’s rhetoric.

Only the day before Maude’s article, it was revealed that the Attorney General had blocked disclosure of Prince Charles’ letters to government ministers.  In his statement justifying the use of the veto, Dominic Grieve stated that:

“Much of the correspondence does indeed reflect the Prince of Wales’s most deeply held personal views and beliefs. The letters in this case are in many cases particularly frank.

“They also contain remarks about public affairs which would in my view, if revealed, have had a material effect upon the willingness of the government to engage in correspondence with the Prince of Wales, and would potentially have undermined his position of political neutrality.”

The statement itself raises a number of questions, aside from the simple point that the request has been refused on the grounds that it might be “difficult” and “uncomfortable” (to use Maude’s words), it raises questions about the actual role of the monarchy in the UK.  If the communications could “potentially have undermined his position of political neutrality”, it is clear that Prince Charles is indeed involving himself in political matters, something that  undermines the idea of a politically neutral monarchy.  Indeed, as FOI Man has argued in hisanalysis of this issue:

Either the Royal Family are mere figureheads for our country with no real power, or they seek to influence Government. They can’t be both. If it’s the latter, then I think there’s a public interest in at least some of their correspondence being available to us all, so that we can gain a true understanding of their role.

It is clear to me that if the Royal Family are engaged in the democratic process, their communications should be completely transparent.  How can we “promote transparency all over the world” when our government prevents its electorate from accessing communications between it and the future head of state?  This is not the transparency it would appear that Maude is calling for, this is selective transparency. And this selective transparency runs deeper than letters between Prince Charles and the government.

The day before Maude’s article was published (surely not suspicious timing??), it was revealed that private emails between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks were withheld from the Leveson Inquiry as a result of “personal legal advice” taken by the Prime Minister. From The Independent:

The cache of documents, which runs to dozens of emails and is also thought to include messages sent to Andy Coulson while he was still a Rupert Murdoch employee, was not disclosed after No 10 was advised by a Government lawyer that it was not “relevant” to the inquiry into press standards.

The contents of the private emails are described by sources as containing “embarrassing” exchanges. They hold the potential to cast further light on the close personal relationship between the Prime Minister and two of the media mogul’s most senior lieutenants.

Clearly rattled at the subsequent Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron refused to answer a question from Chris Bryant MP on the emails, a refusal that was a serious breach of parliamentary procedure (will other Ministers refuse to answer questions because they are upset with the questioner?).  Whilst Cameron has now responded to Labour’s deputy leader, he still has not addressed the substantive point about the nature of the communications between himself and Brooks.  Clearly, Cameron is not keen on his feet being held to the fire…

The truth is that, despite Maude’s words offering greater transparency and a commitment to end the “closed door culture“, nothing substantial has really changed under the current government.  The final sentence in Maude’s piece rather gives the game away:

Far better to work under the knowledge that what you do will be scrutinised, analysed, picked over – that will make people at every level in government think twice about how they spend taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

For this government, transparency is all about how much money is spent, not about the actions of our elected representatives.  If the government is to be serious about transparency, it needs to go beyond pound signs on a balance sheet and encompass the workings of the state and our representatives.  Whilst the Freedom of Information Act has brought a greater degree of transparency to the workings of government, there is still a sense that it is the government alone that determines the transparency that the people deserve.  Until this selectivetransparency is eradicated, no government has a right to argue that transparency is “at the heart of its agenda”.  What is the good of claiming that governments need their feet held to the fire when it is their fire, their hands and their feet?  It should be our hands, our fire and theirfeet, only then will we truly have transparency that is “risky, difficult and uncomfortable”.

What future for the Freedom of Information Act?

Last week it was revealed that the government had vetoed the release of the NHS risk register, despite repeated failed appeals against the Information Commissioner’s ruling that it should be published.  This decision has prompted a particularly stark warning about the future of the Freedom of Information Act by the Information Commissioner himself.  As The Independent reports:

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham launched a scathing criticism of the decision to exercise the Government’s veto in a report on the case to Parliament.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley deployed it to block an Information Tribunal ruling that he should meet Labour demands to disclose the document.

Mr Graham dismissed his claims that there were exceptional circumstances and that it involved a matter of principle.

“The arguments are deployed in support of what is, in fact, the direct opposite of the exceptional – a generally less qualified, and therefore more predictable, ‘safe space’,” he wrote.

“As such, the Government’s approach in this matter appears to have most to do with how the law might be changed to apply differently in future.”

Indeed, there are very real concerns about the future of the Act, given the government’s obvious disdain for truly transparent governance, rather than the selective transparency that appears to be the preferred policy.

In another interesting development, the Commons public accounts committee has stated that private companies doing business with central government should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act:

In its report on the Work Programme on Tuesday, the committee recommended that the Cabinet Office Efficiency Reform Group (ERG) should extend its work to ensure that taxpayers get better value from companies that depend on central government deals for most of their income.

“There is little transparency over the financial affairs of companies which derive their income solely from government,” says the report. “Where companies depend on public sector contracts for the bulk of their income they can expect their performance, profits and remuneration packages to be subject to proper scrutiny by parliament on behalf of the taxpayer.”

The inclusion of private companies providing services on behalf of the state is long overdue.  If they are providing services and in receipt of tax payers money, then of course they should be subject to Freedom of Information legislation (I would go further and argue all companies should be subject to FoI but this is probably unrealistic).  In fact, this amendment to the legislation is even more important given the existing policies of the current government.

Since taking office, it has been clear that the government wishes to radically reform as many public services as possible, partly to splinter effective opposition (see Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine for a detailed expose of the tactic of economic reform on the back of a “shock”).  By reforming so many at the same time, it results in opposition that focuses on individual reform policies rather than an effective, co-ordinated opposition.  Which is why we are seeing massive reforms on the NHS,the police and education (amongst others).  The problem with these reforms, is that they will push many areas outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.  Indeed, this was noted by Katherine Gundersen over at the UK Freedom of Information Blog last year:

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has written to the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, expressing concern that the public’s rights to information about the NHS are likely to be “increasingly constricted” by the reforms in the Health and Social Care Bill.

Under the reforms, NHS services will be provided either by NHS bodies or by independent providers under contract. The NHS bodies which commission services will themselves be subject to the FOI Act though the independent providers will not. However, the providers will be contractually required to provide information to the commissioning bodies to help them answer FOI requests.

Pushing these reforms through quickly and reducing the power of the Freedom of Information Act (rather than strengthening and widening its scope) will ensure that the electorate are not properly able to scrutinise the policies that are being enacted in their name.  To say this is under-democratic is an understatement.  The government is well aware that if their already controversial polices were truly transparent, they wouldn’t have a chance of passing the legislation.  It appears that the government is desperately trying to ensure that it can push these reforms whilst ensuring that democratic accountability is weakened.  Weakening FoI legislation will make it easier for politicians to get away with policies that are deeply unpopular.  It is clear, therefore, that weakening the Freedom of Information laws as the government appears to be intending, will result in a weakening of our democracy.  At this time of “austerity” when government is taking radical, unpopular action to reform public services, there should be efforts to ensure total transparency throughout.  We should expect nothing less.

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.