Transparency: Unintended Consequences

By Dr Ben Worthy

Transparency is a force for good but can prove controversial. Although governments are moving towards internal co-operation, the devil is often in the detail, as seen with the G8 tax transparency pledge which has been heavily criticised. The ongoing Quality Care ‘cover up’ shows how transparency can have many, sometimes unexpected, consequences.

On 30th May Dr Tero Ekkila presented from his new book on the impact, unintended or otherwise, of transparency in Finland, one of the world leaders in openness. You can see his presentation here. The event was organised by the Finnish Institute, Embassy of FinlandCenter for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck University and the University of Helsinki (see the Institute’s blog here).

Finland has had Freedom of Information legislation since 1951 and has been pushing transparency further ever since. In fact, Finland is the home of the idea of government openness, pioneered in the 18th century by a cleric named Anders Chydenius (see his foundation here) and pamphleteer named Peter Forskål (see his 1759 pamphlet here).

Dr Ekkila pointed out that, despite this pedigree, exactly what transparency means changes over time. In Finland the concept itself has shifted from the idea of information simply being ‘public’ to a more economic idea of being ‘transparent’ about performance and benchmarking through Open Data and regular publication. Transparency is in the eye of the beholder.

This shift can have all sorts of unintended consequences. In Finland, high levels of trust in government combined with openness has led to some unusual steps, such as census data being available for sale or parts of government you would expect to be closed using openness to show how well they are performing.  I offered a few reflections on how the UK experience of openness compared.

The presentations were followed by a panel discussion with Christopher Cook (Financial Times), Paul Gibbons (SOAS) and Dr Gesche Schmid (Local Government Association) about the changing context in the UK around FOI and now, increasingly, Open Data and online transparency. They discussed the shifting aims of transparency, given the increasing emphasis on the economic benefits of data from the government. They asked who, crucially, will use the new data the government is publishing.

The panel pointed out that there may not be a clear distinction between ‘open’ data and ‘closed’ information. Given the complexity of the new data and need for specialists software, there may be a ’middle ground’ whereby specialists can use useful data under licence to disseminate. To make the picture even more complicated, there are growing concerns over the reverse side of transparency, privacy, not least with recent PRISM revelations.

The final question from the day was how all this information fits together. As our idea of transparency changes, time will tell whether all this new information is an empowering add on or a distracting alternative to a centuries old pressure for open government.

Dr Benjamin Worthy is a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck.

(Local) Information is power? Localism and local transparency

Dr Benjamin Worthy reflects on the Centre’s recent seminar on localism and local transparency.

One of the Coalition’s flagship transparency policies is now in place. Every local authority in England is publishing all their spending over £500 (see an example local authority here). Some are also publishing a host of other information from salaries to contracts and grants. Our seminar on Thursday discussed how this is developing and what impact it may have on the future.

In late September 2012 the Local Government Association surveyed 128 local authorities to find out what was happening (see here). The first finding was that everyone is publishing spending data, though there is variation in other information being published; 100% of councils that responded published spending data, 96% published salaries but only 54% published details of grants to community groups. There are also various strategies with which this links up – some authorities link it to FOI policy or communication, though some to none at all.

In terms of use, it seems that there is very little public interest as yet, with a sense there was no ‘demand’ for the data. The information is still seen as too ‘raw’ and is not yet useful, localised or contextualised enough to attract or interest local people. Local authorities indicated the biggest impact of the data had been to increase their accountability, with 80% feeling it helped ‘external accountability’ with the added benefit, from 50 % of those asked, of reducing the volume of FOI requests.

Discussion in the seminar focused on the ‘Armchair Auditors’; the idea, championed by Eric Pickles, that citizens will be the new auditors of their own authorities. Though there are some appearing, it may take time, particular skills and a certain enthusiasm (and stubbornness) to become one and not everyone is convinced. See this example and an interesting comment here.

However, one of the most important developments is not the data local authorities are releasing but the innovations. This can be developments such as Chris Taggart’s Openly Local where you can assess council spending at the push of a button or the wonderful ‘Where Does My Money Go’.

Data also becomes more useful when data is linked to other data. The survey points to some emerging use by community groups and other public bodies, with a great deal of interest in further ‘joining up’ of information across bodies and council boundaries and in the pushing of more innovative developments.

The future is likely to lie with initiatives such as this DCLG experiment where different kinds of data can be linked and made relevant, both for people and policy-makers themselves. These initiatives can move in many unexpected directs from prescription analysis that can save money to this amazing site in India, recommended by an audience member, which enables citizens to report who they paid a bribe to. The future of data is local, linked and may be unexpected.

Thank you to everyone who took part.

From Parliament to Parish: Transparency and the Ultimate Accountability

By Dr Ben Worthy

Transparency laws, and FOI in particular, are intended to bring about increased accountability. When Tony Blair passed the Freedom of Information in 2000 it is unlikely he had Walberswick parish council specifically in mind. However, at the beginning of October five members of the parish council stepped down following what they claimed was a lengthy FOI campaign that was draining their resources (and it seems their patience).

They aren’t the only politicians to pay the ultimate price because of FOI. The 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal, in part a result of FOI, is still claiming careers. There has also been a drip of politicians who paid the price elsewhere. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives stepped down in 2006 over spending on taxis revealed through requests and Ian Paisley Jnr, member of the Northern Irish Assembly, stepped down following FOI revelations of inappropriate lobbying in 2008. Over in the Republic of Ireland one councillor was imprisoned when an FOI revealed corruption and widespread parking fine abuse was revealed at another authority.

FOI can be a powerful weapon of accountability. But it needs the right circumstances. Many of the cases above were driven by journalists with the time, patience and tenacity to pursue their case. Transparency doesn’t create a new ‘magic’ solution to accountability but it does work with other forces to bring it about. Think of the MPs’ expenses here, driven by journalists but was made possible by a leak. At local level it is often an extra weapon in an on-going struggle – it often forms part of wider campaigns on a specific (often controversial) issue that includes the media, letters and attendance at meetings (see this example).

In the case of Walberswick it is alleged the ‘over 100’ requests were driven by four residents in the area. Research shows FOI is very rarely used at Parish level and it is possible it was part of a wider struggle. It is probable that wider ‘local politics’ was to blame and that is not just the volume.

However, although it doesn’t work alone, FOI does have interesting effects. One local councillor in a UCL study of FOI and local government study spoke of how FOI brings an element of unpredictability to what politicians and officials have to account: ‘it is funny what you get pulled about’. It may be the forgotten away day, staff phone calls or use of a limousine. A classic issue was payments to celebrities to switch on Christmas lights. This can also be seen in the publication of all the £500 spending data: stories about councils spending on frozen foods, crematoria or suits of armour fit in the ‘unexpected’ category (see here for some background).

What is equally as interesting is how politicians react. Given its ability to spring surprises politicians rapidly go off FOI. Many, unsurprisingly, blame the Act for handing a weapon to enemies:

The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.

That, of course, is Mr Tony Blair. His scepticism was echoed by Cabinet Secretary Gus O’ Donnell.

Yet not all politicians or officials react badly. There are, it appears, no recorded examples of officials obstructing requests. Some politicians see it as an opportunity to open up and engage with the public-the Justice Committee concluded that FOI was, on balance, a good thing:

The Freedom of Information Act has enhanced the UK’s democratic system and made our public bodies more open, accountable and transparent. It has been a success and we do not wish to diminish its intended scope, or its effectiveness.

Transparency will continue to be used as a tool of accountability, often for small issues and occasionally claiming careers. This is what it was intended to do. Yet this is exactly what upsets whose support it needs.

This is an extended version of an article in the Local Government Chronicle.