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Saturday, January 28, 2012

An alternative view of transparency

This morning's Independent shows that a decade of openness and transparency in government has not won over the hearts and minds of the mandarins whose job it is to keep the show on the road.

They say that the former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell has revealed that civil servants spend a great deal of time working out ways around the Freedom of Information Act including instituting a system of "oral government" in which important discussions are never written down:

The peer, who left his role as head of the Civil Service in December, said the fear of minutes eventually being published was "driving stuff underground or into non-FOI-able routes".

In an interview with BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour, Lord O'Donnell said the process would result in "worse public policy decisions". He repeated his call for the Act to be overhauled.

"You just don't know when you write something down whether that is eventually going to be decided by a tribunal of people who may have never worked in government whether or not that should be released," he said.

"If everybody thinks, well, that's all going to become public and that's going to be used against me, people will naturally say, OK, well perhaps I had just better keep quiet. And then you get to a situation where you have oral government."

Lord O'Donnell said a similar issue in the US led to the use of Post-it notes during discussions.

"They'd stick 'I disagree with this' on them. And then there were Freedom of Information requests for the Post-its," he said.

What this reveals is not that freedom of information has led to bad government but that those whose job it is to govern have never adapted to the greater scrutiny it brings.

I find it quite extraordinary that a mandarin who was meant to be a servant of the people should spend so much of his time excluding them from the process of government.

The Act already contains exemptions that protect the national interest and is nowhere near as open as its American equivalent. If civil servants really cannot cope with that then they need to step aside and let people do their jobs who can.
"...a mandarin who was meant to be a servant of the people.."

These people are not our servants.

Unfortunately, in the UK (I think the Scots might disagree about Scotland) the people are not sovereign.

If they were, and if the UK were a democracy where all our votes counted, and our rights and responsibilities clearly laid out in a written constitution, then we would live in a better, fairer society, and probably wouldn't be in the mess we're in.

Instead we life in a country which has failed us all in most respects, with governments and elites looking only to self interest.

It is indefensible, but almost impossible to change without dismantling the entire rotten structure and starting again. I don't see it happening. That is why I'm confident that the UK has a bleak future - it's already in the process of disintegration.

Fortunately the Scots and we in Wales can simply vote out of it in a referendum. I feel sorry for the millions of ordinary people over the border who are likely to suffer it for the foreseeable future.
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