Seeing through transparency?

So the UK Government has published Departmental spend reports, amid much fanfare over the unprecedented opening up of government and so on (the Scottish Government got there first , as it happens).

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude set out the purpose of the exercise: “I want the public to hold us to account for what we do“, and the Government has conjured up an image of a nation of “armchair auditors” who will probe and analyse this data until every story is unearthed and every scrap of waste is excised.

I’m sure that some of said auditors are beavering away. I’m sure that some stories will emerge. So far, all I’ve seen is a few sniggers at the “revelation” of a £26k training bill for training Cabinet Office staff to have “difficult conversations”, and some similar fluff.

Am I alone in being sceptical about the consequences – intended or unintended – of this kind of “transparency”?

There’s something in that term “armchair auditors” that rings alarm bells. Because these spend figures are available to real, professional auditors who regularly expose the (perhaps relatively few) instances of poor judgement, gross inefficiency and downright fraud that goes on in Government. And since they have access to much more than the raw data that is being pumped out, they probably have a better understanding of what value is being delivered by the spend in question. Indeed, I know of no organisation, public or private, in which scrutiny of detailed spend reports by senior managers, still less by shareholders, is held to be a model of good governance. Even at my pretty abject level in the Great Chain of Being,  transaction reports are a small part of the picture that allows me to manage my unit’s work.

So the result is more likely to be the kind of “story” that the press seemed to find in the “difficult conversations” workshop (even the Guardian couldn’t resist, referring to that workshop as “lingering waste”, as though it was something nasty and smelly left in a desk drawer that Gordon Brown should have emptied on his way out). Lacking context, and caring less, the media can focus on anything that looks wacky, creative, “politically-correct”, and most especially on anything that looks even remotely fun, and “hold Ministers’ feet to the fire” until they use those same feet to stamp on any such activity. The most “difficult conversations” Cabinet Office civil servants may be having is trying to explain to Mr Maude why £26k may actually have been pretty good value in the circumstances…

This makes me think of last weekend’s furore over the outing of civil servant Sarah Baskerville (@baskers) for tweeting at and about her work in Whitehall. The twitterati were outraged. Bloggers (there were quite a few) argued that this kind of attack will, and is probably designed to, scare public servants away from revealing themselves to be human beings with feelings and hangovers, and discourage them from using social media for fear of ending up pilloried in the Mail.

Will the release of spend data produce the same kind of self-defensive caution among public servants? A civil service paralysed at the thought that anything but the most rigorous and explicit orthodoxy in their spending habits will leave them exposed and hung out to dry? Yes, almost certainly. After all, civil servants are a pretty cautious lot at the best of times. Will this be good for public services, the public purse, or the public generally? Doubtful.

Don’t get me wrong – I do believe that transparency is important. The point is, though, that transparency can be dangerous without engagement. If the processes, conversations and decisions of our public services are really to become transparent, then public servants need to have the tools (and that means the technical resources, the skills, and the backing) to contextualise, to consult, to explain, and at the end of the day to defend, their own actions. Otherwise the release of post hoc data will only encourage witch-hunts and scare stories which reinforce the view that public servants are, literally, a bunch of wasters.

But perhaps that’s the point?


5 responses to “Seeing through transparency?

  1. Once folk have realised that the great majority of public servants are not free spending halfwits things will settle down. The Freedom of Information Act may already have gone far enough for skilled questions to expose administrative waste, but it probably hasn’t

    One thing that aggravates me each time I hear it happens whenever a public body is required to make cuts. Amazingly some spokesman says that they have already identified £X,000,000 of waste and are cutting that now.

    If it was waste, and if they could identify it so easily, why did they not cut that before?

    We could have had a road built, a thousand patients treated, a tunnel under an SSSI instead of a cutting through it, wildlife preserved , so many things that the waste over many years has prevented.

    Transparency may, and I hope it does, identify and eliminate waste before the cuts are needed. Of course that will give nothing easy left to cut, but I feel that this can often be in a budget as a contingency item anyway, in the same way that all of this year’s money must be spent, even on trivia, to ensure that the same or a greater budget is granted for next year, a dreadful process.

  2. I will be writing more on this subject, but one very obvious ‘unsaid’ point on transparency is that seems largely to be a rear-view picture: what has happened in the past, usually when too late to do something meaningful about it other than write some snarky articles.

    I argued here that there were other, perhaps more useful, classes of open data, including the forward view of “things under consideration but which haven’t yet happened” – for example, submitted planning requests or next year’s budget. Amongst other things I would be really keen to see these opened up. That would test engagement in a far more meaningful way: would transparency then enable change before the event?

  3. Pingback: Public Strategist » Interesting elsewhere – 22 November 2010

  4. Pingback: Accountability: The impact of open data |

  5. Pingback: Accountability: Is participation a better alternative? |

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