Tony Blair passed the FOI Act but later called it his biggest mistake. David Cameron said it can ‘occasionally fur up the arteries of government’. Obama seems to have gone from being the Transparency President to the Secrecy Chief Executive. So why do politicians go off transparency?
Here are a few reasons-some obvious, some less so.
First, politicians are often not that enthusiastic to begin with. Some adopt transparency laws because of pressure, often due to a huge ‘secrecy’ scandal. Some have the Acts forced upon them, such as US President Lyndon Johnson. His Press Secretary revealed how:
‘LBJ hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets; hated them challenging the official view of reality…only some last-minute calls to LBJ from newspaper editors overcame the President’s reluctance; he signed “the damned thing,” as he called it (only I’m paraphrasing); he signed it, and then went out to claim credit for it’.
Those that do support transparency are often inexperienced or not really thinking about it-Tony Blair called himself a ‘naïve nincompoop’ for not thing about FOI enough before it was passed (see this CFOI memo). There’s a lot of wishful thinking that FOI or Open Data will ‘revolutionise’ politics or ‘transform’ how the public see its government. Very good in theory (and in opposition) but more complex in political practice.
Second, politicians hate surprises. Transparency springs surprises and one thing politicians do not like is the unexpected. This means they have less control of the news agenda. See some of these recent national and local media stories from FOI Directory here and imagine you are a politician (please don’t be distracted by the clown related crime story).
Third, a less obvious answer concerns how senior politicians and officials meet transparency. Most people high up in an organisation only see a very small percentage of requests or a few data releases. They are often copied in to the 1 or 2 per cent of particularly troublesome requests, sensitive cases or, worst of all, the ones involving them. So they get a very selective, and very negative, view of what is being asked.
So, a typical leader first encounters transparency when they spit their coffee over the newspaper in the morning. Not the best way to meet it. In the UK the Labour Cabinet first seriously thought about the Act when a request asked for the Cabinet discussions over the legality of the invasion of Iraq.
Fourth, transparency doesn’t always do what politicians want it to do. David Cameron wants his new Transparency Agenda to bring economic growth and have us all pouring over our Council accounts before we go to bed. I’m not convinced. The convergence of openness with technology makes this optimism even stronger-the idea that computer power and information technology can suddenly solve lots of problems through transparency continues to mesmerise politicians.
But why does it matter? In one sense the moans of politicians are signs of transparency working well. But it matters because of how politicians react.
Some politicians try and make transparency be something it is not by seizing control of the definitions-transparency is what they say it is. For example, David Cameron is trying to make Open Data and transparency all about economic growth and the transparency of private companies. He claimed real freedom of information is about “the money that goes in, the results that come out”. Such criticisms of FOI also send out signals to others that openness is ‘bad’ or is being abused.
Finally, it matters because it can lead to attempts to reform or change the Act. The UK has seen numerous attempts to ‘pushback’ by Parliament and at least two governments, with a not-often-mentioned change to the Act that excluded the Monarch and heir to the throne. US leaders have swung back and forth from supportive to hostile over three decades. Perhaps the point here is that transparency is not a straight, ever improving success. It goes forwards but also backwards, as this EU study shows. Politicians’ attitudes are key.