by Joseph Markus
It is an exceptional occasion when the interests of secrecy transplant those of transparency. Fundamentally a good government should be an open government. At times, secrecy might become more valuable than openness. However those circumstances should be narrowly defined and strictly exceptional.
Yesterday the government announced their intention to do just this: to privilege secrecy over transparency and veto the direction to publish the transitional NHS reforms risk register. The thing the government happens to have overlooked in their ‘exceptional’ veto decision is the nature of government or, more accurately, governance. They seem to believe that the role of the citizenry—that put them there in the first place—comes to an end at the point at which a government is returned. For them, democracy takes place only every five years and no more frequently.
Actually what governance means is, in part, the ability of the public to assess what, and how, the government is doing. In (partially) voting this government into power, we did not surrender our critical faculties, nor did we supply the Cabinet with an unlimited personal mandate to rule. Transparency of government is necessary so that we—in addition to government—can take part in governance. So that, first, we can feel sure that the government is not misleading us for narrow political or ideological gain and that, second, we can objectively—with the aid of government spokespeople and the media—assess the impact of proposed or nascent reforms.
Without this the government paints us as petulant children, constantly demanding sight of hidden documents but without the ability or inclination to understand the complex set of facts and figures contained within them. This is precisely what Tony Blair meant in his Journey when he expressed regret that the Freedom of Information Act had made government harder. Transparency for Mr. Blair made the deception of government—that always and everywhere they are doing the right thing—that much harder to maintain. Both Mr. Blair and the Coalition, through the proposed veto, indicate that they are of the school of thought that government is of the people rather than for them.
To be sure, Mr. Lansley is right when he suggests that the Freedom of Information Act contemplates a ‘safe space’ in the interests of what he chillingly terms ‘effective government’. However we ought not to forget that the Information Commissioner has the power to assess whether or not disclosure is in the public interest, and, in fact, he is able to withhold publication in appropriate cases. It may remain acceptable for a government minister to hold the power to veto a direction of the Commissioner requiring publication. It certainly doesn’t feel right, though, when the motive behind that veto seems to be personal-political self-preservation or, for example, when the ‘effective government’ to which Mr. Lansley refers is a highly-contested policy which did not figure in the Conservative manifesto and which obviously lacks the support of the professions and the public.
Whatever happens, and in any event, the government loses. If it publishes the risk register, we all get to learn that which we most fear: that the government is quietly dismantling the NHS while at the same time denying that it is doing so. If it refuses, and the Commissioner upholds the use of the veto, we arrive at the same result: why else would the government have refused to allow publication. It certainly isn’t the principle of the thing—that civil servants would become suddenly less frank. Inverting the problem highlights the transparency of the motives at the heart of this. If the risk register was overwhelmingly positive, why wouldn’t the government have released it already and even voluntarily?
Whatever happens we will know that ideology and the desire for ‘effective government’, for this government, overrides our interest in democratic governance.