Transparency, Openness and Government

Posted On: 
7th June 2019

Exploring the tension between an open and transparent government in times of political turbulence.

Credit: 
PA Images

Transparency in what action the government undertakes and what information it holds has become a cornerstone of liberal democratic government. Proposals for the Freedom of Information Act were first published in 1997 and in the White Paper at the time the government explained that the aim was a more open government based on mutual trust and that “openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state”.

Today though, in an age of fake news, disinformation, the 24-hour news cycle and widespread access to information technologies, the open and transparent nature of government can be seen to be taking steps back rather than forward, and all at a time when trust and transparency are most needed. Recent examples only serve to highlight the struggle between transparency and the government’s desire to hold its privilege over information deemed to be in the public interest.

Perhaps the most recognizable instance of government holding back information is the Nissan letter. After much pressure from external sources the government released a letter from October 2016 confirming it had indeed pledged state aid and support to Nissan with regards to Brexit when at the same time the government was assuring the public that there was no special deal for the car company.  With the publication of the letter the government was shown to have been misleading in what was the actual case with even the Treasury Committee Chair Nicky Morgan seeking clarification as to why both herself and her predecessor Andrew Tyrie were not informed about the deal arrangements.

The examples of seeking transparency does not end there. Parliament last December held the government in contempt in order to seek the publication of the full Brexit legal advice. The Attorney General Geoffrey Cox had argued that the public interest did not permit the publication of the advice in full but rather only a summary document was to be published and questions held in parliament. The government was also found by a Sky News investigation to have taken out hundreds of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in relation to no-deal Brexit preparations. Some of the bodies the government had NDAs with told Sky News that they felt frustrated that an ‘obsession with secrecy’ had hindered the ability for constructive debate and the exchange of information.

This diluting of the transparency principle isn’t just limited to government. The NHS and universities have also been found to have extensively used NDAs/gagging clauses to stop whistleblowing or the reporting of bullying and sexual harassment.

Moving transparency forward

Which begs the question of what is being done to both monitor this situation and improve it. This is where the invaluable role of the established committees comes into play with the Public Accounts Committee of both the House of Commons and the Welsh Assembly highlighting issues of transparency in two respective reports.

In their report on the situation of auditing local government, the HoC Public Accounts Committee highlighted that ‘in 2017-18, auditors found that 1 in 5 public bodies did not have proper arrangement in place to secure value for money for taxpayers’. The report then goes on to explain how the transparency of local government can improve with a list of recommendations ranging from improved monitoring, substantive feedback and setting out clear expectations.

The Welsh Assembly Public Accounts Committee has also highlighted transparency issues in their annual scrutiny of accounts of public bodies with the use of confidentiality agreements by public sector organizations. Examples mentioned by the committee include the Welsh government’s agreements with Aston Martin for its new plant at St Athan and the Circuit of Wales project in Ebbw Vale. In their report, the committee called for more transparency around the reporting of some areas of actual or potential expenditure. The list of forty recommendations put forward by the committee in their report contains references to transparency in six of their proposals for change.

The Information Commissioner’s Office also recently held a consultation on its draft ‘Openness by Design’ strategy, aiming to…

To read the rest of the article and a look ahead at key events related to government transparency, click here.