Does the UK have an ecology of transparency?

Official Secrets Act warning sign on quayside ...

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Seth Kreimer developed the term “ecology of transparency”. He was looking at a way to explain the interaction of actors and organisational contexts to explain transparency within the United States. Although his work is focused on the United States, I have tried to apply it, with the usual caveats, to the UK.  An ecology of transparency relies on three connected areas. First, there has to be a permanent infrastructure of civil servants with integrity and internal watchdogs.  Second, there have to be opportunities to publish and share information. Third, there has to be a set of civil society actors, such as the press or campaign groups, that are capable of pursuing prolonged campaigns to disclose information.

In the UK, all three parts exist with varying degrees of success and strength.  Overall, the UK’s political culture is changing.  How it changes, with Leveson and the transparency agenda, will decide whether an ecology of transparency develops. For this paper, we have to remember that the US has a divided government, while the UK is a unitary state.  The divided government creates internal “competition” about transparency that is not as easily replicated in a unitary state. In the United States government, agencies can be transparent to defend their bureaucratic “turf”. An ecology of transparency can still exist in a unitary state if the parts are working properly.

Civil Servants: Watch Dog for the public or protector of a political establishment?

The UK has a fine tradition of civil servants. However, the tradition is at odds with the demands for transparency required to sustain an open, democratic, government.  What the UK does not have, as the United States does, is history of public non-elected officials holding the government to account by internal checks and balances as well as using external means as needed.  This is not to say the UK civil servants have not done this, rather it is to say their ethos, and organisation, is not conditions for this type of bureaucratic infighting.  If it does, it is not public in the same way as it is in the United States.

A permanent infrastructure of civil servants with integrity and internal watchdogs help foster an ecology of transparency.  In such a system, a “cascade of transparency” can occur.  What this means is when a request for information arrives, its journey within the organisation, and its likely refusal, can set off further disclosures.  The transparency cascades through the organisation. In some cases, the internal transparency (which gets disclosed) is only there to avoid blame.  As I mentioned above, the divided government approach can set off a bureaucratic competition. In the United States, the FBI worked to disclose information to show that it had not condoned torture.  These in turn led to other internal disclosures that led to a Congressional review of its approach to the renewal of the Patriot Act.

By contrast, the internal watchdogs do not seem to have the same role in the UK.  By that I do not mean that they too lax or too tame within the context, rather I mean we do not know of their existence or efficacy. We have yet to hear about or see the same approach by internal watchdogs such as William Leonard who refused to classify documents to protect them from disclosure thus forcing the US government to track and disclose, as well as capture the decision process along the way, regarding the abuse of detainees. (p.1204). To put it directly, who is the UK’s “William Leonard?” To some extent, the Official Secrets Act restrains civil servants as does the culture and ethos of the civil service.  Yet, one has to wonder if a robust democratic culture can develop if the civil servants are not empowered, or capable, of offering the same explicit administrative check on power.

What the civil servants need is the ability to publish and share this information inside the organisation. A network of civil servants can offer an administrative check on actions that go against either the public interest or the law.  However, for that to work, they need to have access to ways to publish, or share, the information. By this, I do not mean simply whistle blowing.  What is needed is a framework whereby the civil service interacts with the press and the external organisations seeking the information to hold the government to account.  In this area, the UK, especially in recent times, has a mixed record, especially considering the power of the Official Secrets Act and its effect on government approach to transparency.

Opportunities to publish can we escape the shadow of the Official Secrets Act?

The second area is the reasonably open opportunities to publish and share information by internal watchdogs as well as external actors such as the press and campaign groups.  For the FOIA to be strong, the media have to be willing and able to use it.  In effect, a strong media makes sure FOIA is robust. However, the opportunity for internal watchdogs to publish and share their work is limited.  The Official Secrets Act (OSA) has a powerful deterrent effect on civil servants. This is not to say the United States is not without its constraints, rather it is to suggest that the First Amendment privileges in the United States make it harder to retrofit a (OSA) system onto the bureaucracy.

In the UK, the information may be available, but it does not function to full effect.  The habit and tradition of publishing routine information, which allowed many of the US “secrets” to emerge, has still to develop in the UK.  In one sense, it could be under threat given the current post-legislative scrutiny of FOIA.  The more the UK has routine disclosure of government (public) information, the more chance for transparency to develop.  The internal information is needed so that it can be made available from within the organisations to create corroborating information outside the organisation.  Yet, for that corroborating material to have its full effect, there has to be actors ready and able to sustain the prolonged campaigns to disclose information.  Does the UK have that building block?

Partial disclosures in one area may lead to disclosure in other areas.  As mentioned earlier, the disclosure can create a cascades of transparency in which lead to further requests.  Yet, it also helps internal regulators become aware of issues to investigate. The short time that FOIA has existed means that FOI requests are still creating the network of knowledge.  The network is made up of those responses that authenticate other disclosures.  In turn, they enhance the understanding of issues that were or are largely ignored.  In a sense, may be happening is horizontal disclosures around the £500 spend lists.  For some organisations, the spending may create transparency within the organisation where none existed before. The process creates internal cascades of transparency. However, further work in this area would need to investigate where these are working most effectively.

Campaigns to change government: a UK tradition, but has Murdoch’s influence weakened transparency?

The third building block of an ecology of transparency is the press and campaign groups.  These are groups that are capable of pursuing prolonged campaigns to disclose information.  On both sides of the Atlantic, organisations that promote transparency face similar challenges.  In the US, the Federation of American Scientists (Steven Aftergood) have worked hard to support a level of transparency around government documents.  In the UK, the Campaign for Freedom of Information (Maurice Frankel) share a similar role.  Both have fought hard to sustain the fight for transparency and openness.  However, their work is only a small part of what is needed to keep governments open and, ultimately, democratic.

The media have an important role, but their effect has been missed because of their relationship to the political establishment. The Leveson inquiry has shown some of its less savoury side. At the same time, despite its failings, the media is an important arbiter of the public interest. In that role, it is an part of the ecology of transparency.  Yet, as this study suggests, the search for political scandal creates systems and rules that can undermine the transparency it is to serve.

The ecology of transparency is still developing in the UK. The parts are in place, but they are not working effectively together. The recent developments within the media have had a negative effect on the political culture.  The future of transparency will depend on how well the Leveson inquiry functions.  The post-legislative scrutiny of FOIA will have an important institutional influence. The challenges raised by the current government’s transparency agenda suggest that the wider political culture is still changing.  The transparency agenda is still unfolding so it may not deliver its intended structural reforms.

A fourth area, still not developed but perhaps falling into the second section is the role of social media. Social media and the rise of the blogger as well as the official channels for communication are opening up government in ways that move beyond legislation.  As such, I have not addressed these developments because their effect is still unfolding.  In a certain sense, they are the shadow context to all of these developments. As they become embedded in organisations and the public conscience, they will be harder to address institutionally.  They can have a role in creating the conditions to nourish an ecology of transparency. There is more work to be done on considering the role of social media and transparency.

If transparency is to succeed, the UK needs to strengthen, not weaken, its freedom of information legislation.  If the legislation is weakened, then all the building blocks for an ecology of transparency will be undermined.  Without transparency, there is no accountability.  Without accountability, there is no democracy.  The choice is ours, we can allow the freedom of information to be weakened or we can seize the opportunity to strengthen democracy.

(This is based upon a section of my paper Making Power Speak: The Power of Freedom of Information from a Practitioner’s View, which is available on the Social Science Research Network to download free.)

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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