Government rhetoric on transparency doesn’t match the reality

Left Foot Forward's Claire French compares the rhetoric of the government on transparency to the reality.

Claire French compares the rhetoric of the government on transparency to the reality

“It’s your money, your government, you should know what’s going on” – David Cameron, May 29th 2010

The problem is, even with its attempts to make Britain “the most transparent country in the world”, the government doesn’t seem to be ready to let the public in.

In his first month as prime minister, David Cameron outlined the plan for greater transparency within government:

“If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since doing this job, it’s how all the information about government; the money it spends, where it spends it, the results it achieves; how so much of it is locked away in a vault marked sort of private for the eyes of ministers and officials only.” reported last month that Cameron’s transparent government was “just a con”, after the prime minister told John Mann MP that ministers’ meetings and hospitality records would only be published every three months.

Transparency may be at the heart of this government’s agenda, but the agenda doesn’t appear to have been circulated around government departments. With an increased reliance on private providers in our hospitals, prisons and copious other public services, we don’t have any power to find out where our money is going.

Channel 4’s Dispatches investigation into outsourcing companies like Serco and Capita highlighted the government’s intent on keeping public expenditure strictly private.

Cabinet office minister Francis Maude said:

“It is our ambition to make the UK the most transparent and accountable Government in the world.”

Yet when he met outsourcing companies to discuss their outstanding contracts, the only public record on the Number 10 Transparency website recalls a very vague “roundtable to discuss joint ventures”.

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg promised an expansion of the Freedom of Information Act at the beginning of the year – progress that will be welcomed by open-government campaigners.

But the Act still its has its problems. A recent FOI return I received (pdf) highlights the efforts of a civil servant to tell me what the pupil premium is, rather than answer my question about how much will be paid to schools in Eastbourne.

The Department for Education interestingly highlights transparency as a priority area in its latest business plan; thankfully, consultation is open till the end of the month.

See also:

“Positive stuff but nothing new” in Clegg’s FoI announcementJanuary 6th 2011

Coalition’s “transparency trailblazer” Pickles refuses FoI requestNovember 1st 2010

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