Research on Open Data and Transparency

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Light and Shadows: The RHI Scandal and the Temptations of Secrecy


Marilyn Stathern, in her famous article on the ‘Tyranny of transparency’, asked: ‘what does visibility conceal’?  While openness can shed light on some areas, it can also create shadows and shade to hide in. One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that openness will create an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of letting in the light, could freedom of information laws, open meetings or open data lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? Could it create what’s called a ‘chilling effect’, whereby officials and politicians bury their decisions elsewhere?

Finding any firm evidence for resistance, avoidance or concealment is notoriously difficult. It could take place in numerous ways, whether avoiding questions or requests, keeping records and decisions off paper, or using non-official emails or networks like WhatsApp. It’s hard to prove a negative, that something isn’t happening and, if it’s done well, it should stay hidden. Only the most incompetent or inept are likely to be caught.

A few concrete examples have surfaced. We have had flashes of an apparent ‘chilling’ in the Trump White House and closer to home with Michael Gove using a private email address for public business in 2012 (as urged by his then advisor Dominic Cummings). More worrying was the evidence in Scotland in 2018 that some parts of government were engaged in “deliberate delaying tactics and requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons”. But are these isolated cases or the tip of an iceberg of systematic resistance? Studies have come to varying conclusions and a Select Committee in 2012 concluded there was no firm evidence.

However, it now looks as though transparency campaigners’ worst nightmare has come to pass in Northern Ireland’s RHI scandal, as detailed in Sam Macbride’s new book Burned. The RHI scandal, as the later Inquiry FAQ explains, concerns “the non-domestic renewable heat incentive… a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy”. However, the FAQ goes on, “how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern”. You can see the background here and a timeline.

Put simply, the ‘tiering’ system, controls and review in place in the Westminster version of the RHI law were removed when it was applied to Northern Ireland in 2012. This helped create a system of perverse incentives whereby fuel cost less than the subsidy.

What was trumpeted as a popular policy was actually one running out of control, based on some very questionable assumptions as to who would pay. Though by no means all those signed up gamed the system, non-domestic properties could potentially do so and there was a rush to sign up. The cost could be around an estimated £700m over 20 years. Rumours spread of biomass boilers being run 24 hours day in hotels, and poultry farms with windows and doors open. The policy was allowed to run for far too long, despite whistleblowers trying in vain to warn all who would listen and growing evidence of its unintended and exorbitant consequences. It was then thrown into reverse in a panic before being partially (and poorly) covered up. In 2018 the scandal was subject to a 111 day inquiry. The final report is due soon.

Sam McBride’s new book reveals a complicated web of conspiracy, dysfunction and secrecy. The major concern is how bare the official record is. Official meetings were simply not recorded, with key meetings left purposely unminuted by both Sinn Fein and the DUP. In March 2018, giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry, the Head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service admitted that “the practice of taking minutes had “lapsed” after devolution”. The BBC quoted him as saying:

Ministers liked to have a safe space where they could think the unthinkable and not necessarily have it all recorded [and] the DUP and Sinn Féin were sensitive to criticism and in that context, senior civil servants had “got into the habit” of not recording all meetings.

He said this was done on the basis that it was sometimes “safer” not to have a record which might be released under Freedom of Information. Arlene Foster denied this happened.

Not only were there few official records, but a hidden, parallel decision-making system appeared to exist. Key decisions were made outside of official channels, via mobile texts and private or party emails (with a later refusal to give them up). Contacts with key stakeholders outside of government went either unrecorded or took place in very odd places, with one SPAD meeting, seemingly accidentally, one businessman who he spotted in a neighbouring field.  One advisor to Arlene Foster ‘had a system whereby he passed “political” messages to Mrs Foster on Post-It notes which were immediately binned and thus could not be released under FoI’. Because of this void where the record should be, we still can’t answer the central question: why were the checks and monitoring cut out of the legislation?

At the same time, there was also an extraordinary attitude to the circulation of what documents there were. One SPAD emailed confidential documents to their relatives. Anonymous tip off emails were sent to the press designed to put them off the scent. One Minister did not know his own official email address and, when asked to give it, gave one of his advisor’s unofficial party accounts.

As with most scandals, the cover-up then exacerbated the crime. Even when the policy was thrown into reverse, the internal investigation was done on the telephone, also seemingly to avoid a formal record. There was a long battle to release the list of RHI beneficiaries, finally released as a pdf.  A full, wide ranging inquiry was also fought against.

It’s not clear to what extent all of this behaviour was habit, sheer dysfunction or active conspiracy, and the truth, as the book shows, lies somewhere in-between. The ‘Spadocracy’ at Stormont had already led to advisors trying to block FOI requests.

Perhaps the key question is what good did it do? From one perspective the secrecy has given some politicians’ a plausible deniability, or at least a very thin veneer of it. There’s enough confusion and opacity not to be sure about exactly who did what, when and where.

If it was intended to provide full proof protection, it clearly hasn’t. The inquiry painstakingly pieced together witness statements, email trails (across different accounts) and messages. What has emerge so far has meant, as one analysis put it ‘RHI turning into a bonfire of the DUP’s reputation to do basic government.’

Nor could it be repeated under the new Stormont deal of January 2020. Page 12 of the deal commits to a raft of changes that include publishing details of Ministers’ meetings with external organisations, details of gifts and hospitality received by special advisers, and so on.

Alongside this, there will be a “robust, independent enforcement mechanism to deal with breaches of the Ministerial Code and related documents’ and ‘a dedicated sub-committee which will consider the findings of the RHI inquiry and propose further reforms”.

What’s more, the secrecy has also been deeply counter-productive. In our 2010 study of FOI in the UK, we found that officials generally feared the consequences of not having a record rather than having one. In Northern Ireland the record ‘void’ has left room for doubt and suspicion. While the lack of a record means politicians have been given some deniability, they can’t clear themselves either. If they can’t be found with a smoking gun, neither can they be truly exonerated.


Originally on the PQ blog here.

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How Well Do We Know Boris Johnson MP?

Johnson voting image

(Image from @svenshaw)

Stefani Langehennig and Ben Worthy

9 December 2019

MPs are now under the closest scrutiny, as their records, behaviour and actions are ruthlessly combed over. So what can we find out and what can it really tell us? Our new project looks at monitory democracy, the idea that a whole host of formal, informal and somewhere in-between bodies are scrutinising those in power, looking in particular at Westminster.

Take the example of Boris Johnson as an MP. In some ways, he’s a rather bad example, because as prime minister, there’s more scrutiny going on than your average MP, especially now. You can find out what gifts are given to PMs (this is May’s rather than Johnson’s, which are yet to be published) and who they’ve been meeting. But he’s also interesting because he seems somewhat averse to scrutiny, and is a good example of what different data can and can’t tell us about our elected politicians.

One obvious starting point for monitoring is Boris Johnson’s voting record. For MPs, it’s often used as a short-cut to get a sense of where they stand, their integrity, their honesty and what they may do in the future-see this comparison of Swinson, Corbyn and Johnson’s LGBT voting record. We can see where Johnson stood on some controversial issues: He voted strongly in support of Iraq war, and the hunting ban. He voted twice against May’s deal but backed it the third time around. Here’s a great example measuring up Johnson’s claim to have been against austerity to his record:

 Since returning as an MP in 2015, Johnson has consistently voted in support of austerity policies…He almost always voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits [and] consistently voted for reducing central government funding for local authorities.

But this data doesn’t tell us the whole story. Johnson only backed May’s deal because he reached the ‘sad conclusion’ that he had to. He supported the Iraq War but later supported investigations into it, which points to a change of mind (or at least the appearance of one). He was also, especially in his early years, a notorious absentee from many votes.

A browse of an MPs’ registers of interests is illuminating. For Johnson, it shows us that actually, like Churchill, he has used his pen and earned from it. You can also see political donations and his links to the pro-Brexit JCB, who contributed to his campaign and gave him helicopter flights. We can’t again know everything, especially given Committee on Standards chastised Johnson for his ‘over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the House’ for which he seemed to profusely apologise. Rumours abound of money from elsewhere, especially Russia.

The more determined monitors could use FOI, one monitory tool that can open up the sometimes grey area between public and private life. It famously helped open up MPs’ expenses. It came bounding into the General Election campaign when Corbyn held up documents, obtained under the Act, seemingly showing the NHS was for sale.

For Johnson, the Act has been used retrospectively to look into his  past, with the Guardian checking his Mayoral diary for meetings with Jennifer Arcuri or who he lobbied over his famous Garden Bridge. There’s now a whole range of monitory bodies and investigations weighing in on his time as Mayor, some of which have been put on hold while the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigates itself.

Such data can reveal and hide what our elected representatives are doing, as Marie Le Conte points out here. It doesn’t tell us about some of the hidden influences on members, such as the huge over-bearing influence of party or the pull of sheer ambition. The data can be read in various ways: is Johnson’s voting record journey from centrist liberal to hard core-Brexit or is it the work of a zig-zagging opportunist? Does his register tell us that is he a successful entrepreneur and writer or someone who just breaks rules?

But data offers us the opportunity to more comprehensively track the activities of our lawmakers and the public’s reaction to these actions. For example, tracking the behaviour of backbenchers uncovers strategies that significantly impact the outcomes of Brexit deals, while social media data suggests that an increasingly polarised public has fuelled politically-defining moments such as Brexit, as well as the rise of Boris Johnson.

These data provide the public the opportunity to hold lawmakers accountable in ways not available before. But whether it does make a difference may very much depend on who is watching.

Our preliminary analysis of followers of @TheyWorkForYou offers a glimpse of the types of followers who track it. Of the more than 4,000 followers, approximately 79 percent are everyday citizens that are engaged in monitoring their lawmakers. While much smaller, more than 4 percent of MPs serving in Westminster engage in monitoring their own legislative actions, while around 7 percent of are academics, charities, and other non-political public organisations. Are the public swapping memes of their MPs’ voting records as they prepare to vote? Are academics crunching voting numbers? And why, exactly, are MPs monitoring themselves?

Stefani Langehennig and Ben Worthy are working on a Leverhulme Trust funded project ‘Who is watching Parliament?’ looking at how new data sources and web platforms have made it easier to monitor Parliament and its members. Image credit: see 

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11 thoughts on Donald Trump, Transparency and Records

Donald_Trump_signs_orders_to_green-light_the_Keystone_XL_and_Dakota_Access_pipelinesDonald Trump with several fellow white supremacist colleagues staff

(i) Donald Trump’s tweets are presidential records.

(ii) If they are records, are they then Impeachable Tweets? This article argues that ‘Trump’s admissions on social media alone provide enough material for Congress to remove him’.

(iii) There are a group of officials in the white house taping Trump’s documents back together. This is probably worth repeating in italics: There are a group of officials in the white house taping Trump’s documents back together. This ‘painstaking process; is apparently the ‘result of a clash between legal requirements to preserve White House records and President Donald Trump’s odd and enduring habit of ripping up papers when he’s done with them — what some people described as his unofficial “filing system.” So ‘armed with rolls of clear Scotch tape, Lartey and his colleagues would sift through large piles of shredded paper and put them back together, he said, “like a jigsaw puzzle.”

(iv) FOIA is getting worse in terms of response, delay and blocking.

(v)FOIA is not popular: AG William Barr complained, in a rather bizarre speech (does he make others?), about the ‘harassment’ of questions and subpoenas about these sill questions about whether the president was making illegal deals to undermine US democracy:

The costs of this constant harassment are real.  For example, we all understand that confidential communications and a private, internal deliberative process are essential for all of our branches of government to properly function.  Congress and the Judiciary know this well, as both have taken great pains to shield their own internal communications from public inspection.

He went on to complain that letting the public ask what was happening stopped government doing valuable work for the public. The people were getting in the way of the people.

There is no FOIA for Congress or the Courts. Yet Congress has happily created a regime that allows the public to seek whatever documents it wants from the Executive Branch at the same time that individual congressional committees spend their days trying to publicize the Executive’s internal decisional process. That process cannot function properly if it is public, nor is it productive to have our government devoting enormous resources to squabbling about what becomes public and when, rather than doing the work of the people.

(vi) FOIA is not popular part 2: Some hugely experienced officials and diplomats were assigned to FOIA duties as punishment and retaliation for their work with Obama, according to this IG report:

In two of the other four cases the IG investigated, career civil servants (“employees two and three”) alleged that Trump administration officials retaliated against them for their supposed ties to the previous administration and its policies. They did so by assigning them to rote administrative work reviewing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests despite their extensive foreign policy experience and the utility they could have provided to a policy office.

(vii) FOIA is making things worse for Trump part 1: emails have revealed Pompeo-Giuliani contacts. Everyone is being dragged into the vortex.

(viii) FOIA is making things worse for Trump part 2: Watchdog Property of the People used FOIA to expose the fact that there were ‘about $138,000 in Department of Defense payments to Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties, over $1,700 in General Services Administration payments to the Trump International Hotel in D.C. and other Trump properties’. These payments ‘are strong evidence of Trump’s violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause, and they belong in any forthcoming articles of impeachment’.

(viv) FOIA is making things worse for Trump part 3: it has also opened up Trump’s real estate dealings.

(x) And I haven’t yet mentioned his tax returns that were subject to a new law in California (now struck down) and now await the verdict of the Supreme Court.

(xi) Or the fact that several members of his own family have been accused of evading records laws by using private emails. Including Stephen Miller, whose earlier email habits consisted of firing off far-right talking points.

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Evidence to the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee



You can watch me giving evidence to the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee hearing on post-legislative scrutiny of the #FOI (Scotland) Act with Prof kevin_dunion, Dr karen McCullagh, alistair_sloan and Prof Colin Reid

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Monitoring, Democracy and Citizens: Some thoughts



Over the last decade a host of new formal and informal ‘political observatories’ watch and hold government to account (Schudson 2010). It has been argued that ‘scores of power-scrutinising and power-checking mechanisms’ create a ‘monitory democracy’, a ‘continuous surveillance’ by formal and informal bodies (watchdogs or observatories) which ‘keep arbitrary power on its toes…taming its excesses and evils’ (Keane 2018, 14).

These new ‘power-monitoring institutions’ draw on a growing armoury of low cost transparency tools (Schudson 2015, Keane 2009, Welzel and Dalton 2016). They range from formal, legal openness regulations all the way to the ‘radical transparency’ or ‘vigilantism’ of WikiLeaks. They can be general or targeted, sector-specific or body-specific. Some parts of the new system are made up of formal oversight bodies such as auditors or inspectors while others, such as Open Data, offer structured means of accessing government information and data. Others are more dynamic and less controlled instruments, from social media to mass leaks. Together these bodies form part of the ‘unending, never finished public business of scrutinising and restraining power’ (Keane 2018, 18).

Though it is has been created piecemeal since 1945, such monitoring has taken on a new force in the last few decades, powered by the growth of networks and the information revolution. Whether it is a new layer ‘atop’ the old institutions of representative democracy, exists in parallel or supplants it is unclear (Keane 2009: 2018). Keane argues that such monitoring replaces the ‘hollowed out’ older institutions and party systems and offers a new means  of checking power, over and above the static and limited accountability created by elections (see Mansbridge 2009).

The full effect of these hybrid formal and informal oversight bodies is to create a ‘permanent’ and ‘continuous’ oversight of government (see Hooghe, M., & Dejaeghere 2007; Schudson 2015, 237). They are closely related to Rosanvallon’s (2008) conceptions around ‘counter-democracy’ and the use of tools of ‘prevention’, ‘oversight’ and ‘judgement’ to counter institutional power.

Whether such activity is positive or negative remains a matter of some dispute, as does the question of whether such action merely ‘monitors’ government or becomes a true locus of ‘counter-availing’ democratic power. It is based around a series of assumptions around how institutions, and those monitoring and monitored behave, including the need for clear institutional narratives and relative civic agreement (Graves 2017).

Questions and issues for the project


The concept of monitory democracy is rather unclear and undeveloped in number of ways. First, for monitory democracy to have an effect requires a certain set of behaviours from those monitored. In terms of legislatures and MPs, their behaviour has always been ‘quasi performative’ and open (Pitkin 1974). The presentation of the ‘self’ has always been a ‘promissory note’ whereby members ‘stockpile explaining ammunition’ (Fenno 1978, 142). Voting data, for example, has always been a cause of concern for members of legislatures, who fear what a few well informed voters obsessed with an issue could do (Fenno 1978). So the new data may mean a greater loss of control, especially if it easier to access, but the effect may not be so different from the past. It also depends very much on who does or does not use this data. A member would be far more concerned if members of the local party or very strong supporters were critical than, for example opponents in the local area (Fenno 1978). Similarly, media exposes of ‘rebellion’ could cut-either way.

Second, the exact outcomes are rather hazy-labelled as a kind of continuous ‘accountability’, through exposure or anticipated reactions, as well as the creation of ‘humility’ and limits on political behaviour (Keane 2018). There has also been some challenge to the idea it is ‘continuous’ but instead is only ‘good enough’ (see Lucas 2017). It may also have the opposite effect, especially with a complex body like Westminster. As Strathern (2000) argues, ‘visibility conceals’ for example, the ‘real facts’ of how an organisation functions, such as relationships, networks, skills and ‘invisible processes’ (314). Monitoring can also, by Keane’s admission, cause ‘conflict’, delegitimise and be used to ‘muck rake’ (see Keane 2013).

Monitory democracy seeks scrutiny, restraint and accountability, but there may be a long and weak link between them. If monitoring has taken place how does it then turn into something that restrains? Much depends on if those tools exists or work. To bring about accountability, restraint or change at Westminster monitoring must lead to, for example, shifts in voting patterns, attempted removal by parties or through recall laws. In fact, two of the three uses of the new UK Recall Act 2015 were driven by a ‘monitorial’ exposure of expenses and register of interests respectively, while one MP’s voting record was mention formally at least in one local party attempt to remove them (Dominic Grieve). In this sense, monitor democracy is not so remote from central democratic ideas of (i) anticipatory (ii) reactive (iii) exposure and appears tangled up in older forms of representation (Weale 2004).

Third, one major area left unclear is the central idea of representation-what does the rise of monitory democracy, used potentially by unrepresentative groups, mean for who, or how an institution represents? Does monitory democracy mobilise too much bias?

An alternative approach that could be used is to conceptualise monitorial democracy more broadly as producing and exposing new lines of democratic conflict and new spirals of battles, mobilising and involvement (Schattschneider 1960). Conflict is inherent in democracy. The heart of this conflict is the ‘long standing struggle between the competing tendencies towards privatising and socialising of conflict’ (Schattschneider 1960, 7). Attempts at exposure or closure ‘creates a chain reaction’ with a ‘fight is difficult to contain’ as different sides famously ‘mobilise bias’ (Schattschneider 1960, 2). Monitory democracy does this far more quickly than in the past, and opens up new areas to scrutiny and conflict. Looking at it through this lens should allow a wider view of the positive and negative impact.

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Theresa May and Boris Johnson: secrecy as statecraft?

During UK–EU Brexit negotiations, Theresa May pursued a determined path of concealment and non-disclosure. Envisaged as a way to protect herself against political opposition, enhancing her bargaining power vis-à-vis the EU and deliver policy promises, the strategy failed and contributed to the end of her premiership. Ben Worthy and Marlen Heide detail how her case illustrates the powers of increasing transparency expectations and the risks of concealment over longer times or around contentious issues. It provides a useful lesson for her successor.

Contemporary leaders are caught between expectations and obligations of transparency and the pressure to achieve tangible outcomes in complex and hostile political environments. Being open is a moral commitment and a way of building trust and legitimacy. Yet leaders still have powerful incentives and temptations to choose a strategy of concealment to protect their power, policy plans or reputation. As such, secrecy still features as part of leaders’ strategic repertoire. How does such an approach play out in an age of transparency?

Pursuing a strategy of secrecy can be a powerful instrument protecting leaders’ room for manoeuvre or power. It can be vital for protecting early or delicate discussions, especially around contentious policy issues. Frequently, secrecy also serves to minimise blame or conceal personal or political mistakes.

Secrecy can, in certain contexts, be a necessary, if not fruitful, way of leading. Concealment, however, comes with risks and downsides, undermining the benefits it is supposed to bring. Secrecy provokes suspicion and speculation, and can raise demands for transparency or provoke leaks. Cover-ups of political mistakes can cause greater damage on a leader’s reputation in the long-term, creating stronger opposition and undermining trust. The can even prove terminal to a career, as the resignations of Eden and Nixon show. Finally, secrecy needs constant maintenance and can consume valuable time and political energy.

The case of Theresa May’s premiership shows what happens when a leader chooses a strategy of concealment in an age of transparency. It illustrates that context is key, and secrecy is more difficult for high-profile controversial issues, such as Brexit, and particularly damaging if exposed when it is tied to the reputation of the leader themselves, as was the case for May.

Theresa May: Prime Minister of secrets

Theresa May had a long-standing reputation for strict information control and a secretive working style. As Home Secretary between 2010 and 2016, she had a ‘preference for working with a close team of advisers [nicknamed the Chiefs], often not bothering to share information with Number 10 or other ministers’. She avoided publicity and scrutiny when problems threatened, causing David Cameron to call her ‘the submarine’. May ‘survived as home secretary for six years partly because she held a tight grip over information flows’ and twice (in 2011 and 2016), blame avoidance and information control saved her career.

As a Prime Minister, May tied her reputation to her ability to successfully negotiate Brexit and, in turn, Brexit to secrecy. She made it clear that her approach was based on strict confidentiality by saying there will be no ‘running commentary’ on the negotiations. May was warned in late 2016 that ‘silence is not a strategy’. In her case, concealment was doubly risky, since there was no substantive policy to protect.

In the short-term, May’s approach temporarily preserved her room for manoeuvre, and her power over a divided party. Many of her big decisions – triggering article 50 or calling a snap election – were taken in small, secret groups. Her avoidance of the press for anything other than set-piece interviews or speeches helped protected her reputation for competence for some time, at least until the election campaign of 2017 shined a dazzling, brutal, light on her abilities.

May’s secretive approach came under pressure domestically. For over two years, Parliament used all the tools at its disposal to force greater openness around Brexit. MPs and committees sought to open up Brexit. Between 2016 and 2018 select committees launched more than 108 inquiries into various aspects of Brexit, as well as creating a new, unusually large, DEXEU committee to scrutinise the negotiations. The ‘publicity spotlight’ at committee hearings revealed ministerial contradictions or confusion. In one day in November 2017, for example, six committees simultaneously questioned six different officials and ministers about Brexit.

One key symbolic battle concerned several government-produced studies on the impact of Brexit. Their existence first became known in the summer of 2017, triggering several requests for documentary access. After FOIs were refused, in November 2017 Labour used an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure, a Humble Address to Her Majesty, to force the government to release them. Other key pieces of information that the government clearly wished to keep secret, from other assessments to legal advice, were forced out of them or informally disclosed. Alongside the more spectacular battles was a daily drip of disclosure. Parliamentary pressure through questions, statements and government scrutiny meant, as the Chair of the Exiting the EU committee put it, ‘we learn something new about the potential impact of Brexit every day’.

At the same time, May’s divided government leaked continually. The leaks began straight away, and this BBC headline sums it up quite how bad things became: ‘Leak inquiry into leaking of letter warning about leaks’. This got worse after 2017 as May’s authority waned and Cabinet ministers openly undermined and contradicted policy. Behind the scenes, pressure from Conservative backbench MPs forced May to be more open and publish the first Brexit White paper in 2017 and another in 2018. By 2019 May appeared to have lost control of the policy, the narrative and with it her own reputation.

Boris Johnson: hiding in plain sight?

Interestingly, May’s successor, Boris Johnson, has followed the same path, with hidden plans for Brexit, made with a closed networks of advisers. He too has said he will deliver Brexit, but what the real plans are – or if there is plan – remains a mystery, with bluff, secrecy and lies swirling like a smokescreen.

In his leadership bid there were limited chances for questions from the press and few interviews. Once in power, Johnson appointed Dominic Cummings, who had been held in contempt of Parliament over his refusal to give evidence. There were early warnings that leaking would mean instant dismissal (though that was, of course, leaked). Most controversially there has been the lengthy prorogation of parliament, which means that Johnson has had a mere five days of scrutiny and avoided the now regular liaison committee appearance, which was scheduled for today, 11 September. Rumours abound of Johnson’s government not only avoiding scrutiny itself, but seeking to scrutinise and gather data on us.

The counter-pressure for forced openness has been even swifter for Johnson than May. Again, like May, Johnson now faces pressure to publish government assessments, this time around ‘Operation Yellowhammer’, its analysis of the impact of a no-deal Brexit (already leaks have undermined Johnson’s own claims). In the final moments before Parliament was prorogued, a humble address again struck, seeking messages, including texts as WhatsApp messages, around prorogation, sending a signal of the determination of opponents to break open the government’s plans. The motion covered:

All correspondence and other communications (whether formal or informal, in both written and electronic form, including but not limited to messaging services including WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Facebook messenger, private email accounts both encrypted and unencrypted, text messaging and iMessage and the use of both official and personal mobile phones.

The all-embracing nature was due to fears – based on leaks from anonymous public officials to Dominic Grieve MP – that decisions were being made outside of formal records and decision-making process (something Michael Gove has previous for). Even if the motion fails to turn up much information – and the government seems unwilling to provide any – it will create pressure for leaks and scrutiny from elsewhere. At the same time, the case in the Scottish courts may prove a crucial first step in undermining his power. It first revealed Downing Street documents showing Johnson’s planning back in August, including his insult that Cameron was a ‘girly swot’ (initially redacted, see image), and today the Court of Session has concluded the main purpose of prorogation was to hinder scrutiny, and so unlawful.

We’ll see when the UK Supreme Court considers the matter next week the full extent of the damage to Johnson’s reputation, and the extent to which such secrecy helps or hinders his power, his policy and his reputation. Hiding anything over a long period of time in a high polarised and partisan environment is almost impossible. May’s attempts to keep the Brexit negotiations secret amid such strong transparency pressure, and with a divided, leak-prone government, always appeared highly unlikely, if not futile. Secrecy triggered a negative spiral against a greater counter-pressure for transparency, exposing May’s policy. Using secrecy to protect a reputation means that any exposure has consequences for a leader’s credibility: May’s premiership came under even greater scrutiny, eventually crashing her reputation. For May, in the end, secrecy failed to deliver power, protection or tangible results. Will it for Boris Johnson?

This post has been updated to include a reference to the ruling of the Scottish Court of Session on prorogation on 11 September.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit. It draws on their article, Secrecy and Leadership: The Case of Theresa May’s Brexit Negotiations’, recently published in Public Integrity, 1-13.

About the authors

Ben Worthy is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power.

Marlen Heide is a Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Communication SciencesUniversità della Svizzera italiana at Lugano.

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Who is watching Parliament?

parliament image

Here’s some details of my new Leverhulme project Who is watching Parliament?

How well can we monitor what is happening at Westminster? What happens when we do? This project looks at how new data sources and web platforms have made it easier to monitor Parliament and its members. At the touch of a button, we can see an MP or peers’ voting record, browse their declared payments in the register of interests or scroll through their expenses. We can even see if people using parliamentary computers are editing Wikipedia. But what does this all mean for parliament and democracy?

An analysis of users of the website found a tendency for people browsing Westminster data to focus on certain high profile MPs (such as the Prime Minister or leader of the opposition), members connected with controversy or certain high profile debates. Data are used to get a sense of a politician’s position on an issue, as done here with Boris Johnson and Jo Swinson.  It can also be used to open up what groups of members are doing-this analysis of Peers register of interests revealed that 1 in 5 members of the House of Lords are advising private business.

You can try yourself with a look at data on the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A browse of his voting record tells us he voted in favour of the Iraq war and civil partnerships but voted against the smoking ban, the banning of fox hunting and is strongly against the EU.  Elsewhere, his register of interests is packed with book royalties, speaking engagements and interesting looking donations.

But this data can only tell us so much. It doesn’t tell us why Johnson voted how he did-he said he supported May’s withdrawal Bill at the third attempt but did so ‘sadly’. Voting is only one part of what an MP does, and their decisions can be influenced by party, country, constituents, ambition and even conscience. We may not see the whole picture either-Johnson was formally warned for his ‘over-casual attitude to rules’ when he failed to declare a property on the register of interests.

Much may depend on who is looking at the data.  It can have a very different impact depending on if it is a curious member of the public fact-finding, a journalist hunting a story, a voter making up their mind or an aggrieved local party member looking to cause trouble. Voting record data has played a part in attempts at deselection. A lack of transparency around the register of interest and expenses have triggered two of the three recall votes since 2015.

So finally, the project asks what it all means for our democracy, now that we can monitor those we elect from the comfort of our own laptop. Some see the new flow of data as simply disruptive, proving ammunition for trolls and opponents. Other see it as part of a fundamental change, as we shift from an old style representative democracy to one shaped by a constant monitoring and surveillance. Does this monitoring mean more democracy or just more noise?