The thing rendered most transparent by the Cabinet Office transparency programme is the transparency programme itself: you can see right through it.
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This became apparent when Prime Minister David Cameron dropped his pants over the News International phone hacking scandal. The government has made a principle of transparency where it suits, and a patsy where it does not. That’s a shame, because there are things like the ConDem’s next generation ID scheme that would really benefit from the sort of transparency the government made a commitment in its coalition agreement.
The promotional blurb for the Cabinet Office transparency programme declared its power to “strengthen people’s trust in government” and “encourage greater public participation in decision-making.”
Computer Weekly had this in mind when it sought details of Cabinet Office dealings with industry over the next generation ID scheme. Just like Labour’s horrifying, original ID scheme, the ConDem scheme is being concocted in secret meetings with industry. Of particular concern is power it may give banks and markets over people’s personal data.
But Cabinet Office refused the information because, it said, collating it would take too much effort. We bet it didn’t take much effort to get the ideas from industry in the first place, nor to keep them informed about their progress.
Government actually finds transparency very easy to do when it suits.
Within hours of News International chief executive Rebbecca Brooks resigning under pressure from the phone hacking scandal on Friday, the Prime Minister had (under fire over the suspected intimacy of his friendship with her) published a list of meetings he had with the press in the last year. It was good to get this cleared up before police arrested her at the weekend. (UPDATE *)
Yet appeals under Freedom of Information law for details of government dealings with private business show how opaque government continues to be. We only know about the next generation ID scheme because Computer Weekly exposed it.
Now we know about it, we are refused further disclosure. We will likely not here more about it till the plans are finalised. So much for greater public participation in decision making.
ConDem transparency policy has always been opportunistic. Forged in the shadow of the 2009 expenses scandal, it has given us little more than open data, which was already afoot under Labour and quite conveniently serves serves the ends of the Big Society programme – that is, the dismantling and fire sale of public sector.
That’s not to say that when this government’s transparency programme was unveiled in the May sunshine after the 2010 general election, the Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg didn’t believe what they were saying.
“For years, politicians could argue that because they held all the information, they needed more power,” they said in the coalition agreement.
“Technological innovation has – with astonishing speed – developed the opportunity to spread information and decentralise power in a way we have never seen before. So we will extend transparency to every area of public life,” they said. What is really astonishing is just how shallow this transparency programme is.
UPDATE 22 JULY 2011
Oops. This story originally said that the Prime Minister’s disclosure revealed only two meetings with Brooks, and did so in a way that implied this was convenient to him:
“Lo and behold, he had only two meetings with Brooks, though more than any with News International as a whole,” it said.
It did in fact reveal seven meetings with Brooks, three with the Murdochs and about 36 per cent of press meetings (26 in total) with News Corp. overall.