By Tony Collins
Francis Maude and the Cabinet Office have made a little progress towards open government but it’s put into perspective by the fact that no progress reports are published on any of the government’s biggest IT projects including Universal Credit.
This morning on the BBC R4 Today programme Lord MacDonald, a Liberal Democrat peer and former Director of Public Prosecutions (2003-2008) – he was also head of the Crown Prosecution Service – spoke of the continuing culture of secrecy in British public life, which he called “absolutely suffocating”.
He was speaking about the wider implications of the Hillsborough Panel report yesterday. He said
“I was in Whitehall for five years. The culture of secrecy in British political and public life is absolutely suffocating… The [Labour] Government brought in the Freedom of Information Act and that has made some difference but it’s not without interest that the prime minister at the time Mr Blair now describes that as one of his biggest mistakes.
“There still is a great attraction to the idea that only some people need to know about what is going on and others don’t… we have got to get away from this culture which is terribly old-fashioned and cannot co-exist with public confidence.”
He said that one of the lessons from Hillsborough was the inability of the state to be truthful about what had gone wrong.
“We have a tendency on the part of British public authorities to see themselves as apart from the public – a long-standing disease of secrecy in our public life and inadequate coroner’s system and a very deep and long-standing corruption in our police services – I don’t mean taking money – but in terms of a culture of deceit particularly when under attack; a culture of deceit that has been quite breathtaking in this case…”
That culture of suffocating, almost tribal secrecy and deceit when things go wrong, flows from the trivial such as IT-based disasters to one of the most serious failures one can imagine – deaths caused at least in part by state incompetence. What is to be done about that culture?
How do you make openness work when the media like to pick on mistakes with extreme prejudice?
A fair point but news editors would soon lose interest in medium-grade stories of public sector incompetence if they were drowning in evidence of it.
News editors are interested in the unusual. The easier it is for journalists to obtain information for a story the less of a story it usually is. In the technology press if we knew that “red” lights on IT-based projects were the norm, we’d be interested in why certain rare projects were given a green light. Parliamentary committees and auditors, however, would want to know why red lights were the norm.
I’d also say that media pick-up on mistakes may be the price to pay for openness. Government officials in China and Russia would not agree. They’d rather have closed government and no pick-up of mistakes in the media.
That said the “Truth” headline in The Sun on Hillsborough victims was inexcusable. Some journalists assume that truth and an off-the-record briefing from someone in authority go together. In my experience they don’t. Some of the briefing may be truthful, some of it speculative and some of it wrong. It’s up to the journalist to find out, or make clear what’s speculative and what isn’t.
We’ve had pervasive secrecy in the public sector and it hasn’t worked. The general perception of the machinery of government is that it’s broken. Isn’t it time to try openness? The general perception can only improve. Tony
Tony – just don’t know.
Who guards the guardians?
How do you enforce an open culture when the enforcing body is itself deeply involved and equally corupt?