Monday, 3 October 2011

Transparency and Accountability

Last week, the Government published the responses to consultation on its proposed code of practice on transparency:

Relatively little seems to have changed as a result of the consultation. There are substantive arguments about the benefits, the scale of the additional burdens and the practicability and effectiveness of the proposed approach which are given a thorough airing in the responses, some of which are hard hitting and don't need repeating here.

In many ways the bigger problem is how narrow the whole debate has been. Any purposive analysis of transparency as currently envisaged would inevitably conclude that it is narrow in the extreme: removing 'top-down bureaucractic' mechanisms and providing raw data to people who are assumed to have the time and the energy to form substantive judgements about it (although this does of course fit with the wider assumption that people know better than politicians which was the subject of a previous post).

Lets just examine briefly two of the ways in which this misses some bigger opportunities. 

The first is that the approach remains partial. For example:

- it fails to recognise that the aim of the Government in increasing diversity in the responsibility for the delivery of public services should place analogous requirements on all bodies which are undertaking such activities not just a requirement to be clear about the amounts going to third sector bodies (something which is frankly neither here nor there in a properly value driven system)

- there is no adequate treatment of how significant comparability of data is for being able to draw any meaningful conclusions. Mechanisms and organisations which previously provided some of that comparability are being removed in parallel.

The second is bigger again. As the Centre for Public Scrutiny set out very clearly in their response, there is no proper engagement with the substantive questions about true accountabilty which must include discussion of governance and decision making. Transparency, even if achieved in an effective manner, is only ever one element of accountability.

The response to consultation does deal briefly with concerns that the code and the current approach may lead to the emergence of a compliance culture. Perhaps it is not overly surprising that there may be a focus on compliance with process requirements when that is where most of the attention has been placed and in the absence of a more purposive approach.

In contrast, a substantive discussion about how to enhance the broader accountability of decision making for public services would be very welcome. It would, however, look rather different to a discussion primarily about the provision of raw data which is focused on how much is spent - rather than why and with what effect.

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