This new era of open government – if that is what it is – is in itself a wholly good thing; indeed, it seems unthinkable that as recently as six years ago, taxpayers had no legal right to find out what government bodies were doing with their money. The Conservative Party that was for so long the bastion of closed, secretive, don’t-let-the-plebs-know government hasn’t just opened the curtains; it’s taken out the railings.
But it has done this for a rather more cynical reason – to provide political cover to wield the axe to the public sector. A public execution may be brutal but at least it smacks of judicial process; a cloak-and-dagger job seems more an admission of guilt. By making more information publicly available and at least appearing to draw the public into the decision-making process, it becomes harder for the public to blame the government if decisions go wrong because (or so the implication goes) the public was partly responsible for those decisions.
The mass publication of government data would be a more credible check on the Cameron administration if the nine tests it published today to determine public spending were unambiguous. Instead, they are hugely open to interpretation – meaning that the casual onlooker can nod in agreement at one potential meaning, while the government attaches its own meaning that is quite different.
To give a few examples:
Does the activity provide substantial economic value? – How do you measure ‘substantial economic value’? The economic value of the trains running vaguely on time? The economic value of public sector workers being paid enough to spend on the high street? The economic value of defence exports?
How can the activity be provided at lower cost? – Lower cost to whom – the government or the end user?
How can the activity be provided more effectively? – You know what’s coming: define ‘effectively’.
Can the activity be provided by a non-state provider or by citizens, wholly or in partnership? – In theory, no doubt it can. Britain’s railways could – in theory. But in practise?
You get the idea.
What this means is that the future publication of government data, while all very well and good, will be a blunt instrument in holding Cameron to account. When the goalposts are ill-defined, the government can place its jumpers wherever it likes. As with Gordon Brown’s infamous ‘five tests to join the Euro’ (and thank god we didn’t), Cameron can make his nine tests mean whatever he wants them to mean. If he wants to send public services to the gallows, he has more than enough wriggle room to do it.
A Treasury official was quoted in the Telegraph today saying: “Anyone who thinks the spending review is just about saving money is missing the point. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way that government works.”
Just which election is the coalition trying to reverse: 1997… or 1945?
PS – If large swathes of the public sector are hived off to the private sector, outside government or public authority control, will they be subject to the Freedom of Information Act? Will they have to disclose data on how they are performing? Or will ‘commercial confidentiality’ darken the new dawn of government openness?
PPS – When is the government going to tell us where it thinks economic growth is going to come from?