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Write Me A Letter: 10 thoughts on the Prime Minister’s letter on Openness and Data

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Theresa May is a keeper of secrets, by inclination, style and force of habit. So the publication of a letter urging her government to open up may come as a bit of a surprise, along with a seeming openness push. This is especially the case this week, when the government is making the DUP’s money secrets more, not less, opaque. But is the letter less than the sum of its parts? What does it all mean? Here’s 10 quick thoughts…

  1. It’s all very David Cameron-a letter not a speech, an article or launch. My suspicion is a letter is designed to make it look like you’ve done something (‘I’ve written them a letter! What more do you want?’) (Cameron wrote one in 2010 then another to tax havens in 2013).

 

  1. What standing does a letter have? Do you have to do it? Should you take notice of an (undated) private minute from the Prime Minister? Can it be safely ignored? I’d guess ‘not much’, ‘no’, ‘no’ and ‘yes’.

 

  1. The ‘next stage’ actually sounds very 2010-2011.

 

  1. It’s released on a Friday, one week before Christmas on a heavy EU news week (though aren’t they all now?).

 

  1. There’s a reprimand that ‘a small number’ of departments have fallen behind. It seems more than that as ‘Departments have become less transparent since 2010 and have not consistently fulfilled their requirements’. According the IFG the rot set in, ironically, in 2010 but has got worse recently. I think May should focus on whoever was in charge of the Home Office 2010-2016, as they seem to have been one of the worst performers in terms of FOI.

 

  1. It’s oddly worded part 1. It has a pretty tepid tone. It reads a bit more like a forced Christmas thank you letter than a ringing call to arms for openness.

 

  1. It’s oddly worded part 2. It talks of a strange, vague thing called ‘online transparency’ that seems somewhere between open data and openness. And, as many people have pointed out, it’s a pdf. That’s neither transparent or useful, in ‘online’ terms.

 

  1. It’s oddly worded part 3. No mention of FOI despite an ongoing FOI consultation (launched in late November).

 

  1. It’s not re-launching or pushing any new policy. One would expect a Prime Minister to perhaps use the letter to push, for example, gender pay transparency (not going too well) or even anti-corruption.

 

  1. Highlighting civil service sickness and absence data first seems slightly out of place-is this designed for ‘lazy sickie (Remoaner) civil servants’ headlines?

 

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