opendatastudy

Research on Open Data and Transparency


Leave a comment

Gender Pay Gap Transparency: Will It Work?

Gender pay gap two

In July this year the BBC, with a bang and probably a muffled whimper, released details of its highest earners. It predictably provoked outrage at the overpaid but also, less predictably, re-ignited the debate on the gender pay gap. Political leaders were quick off the mark to condemn the stark gap between male and female presenters. Theresa May criticised the BBC for paying women less for doing the same job as men and Jeremy Corbyn suggested a pay cap.

How Big is the Gender Pay Gap in the UK?

Measuring the gap is tricky. Here’s a summary from the ONS of some of the key figures for the UK in 2016:

  • Average pay for full-time female employees was 9.4% lower than for full-time male employees (down from 17.4% in 1997).
  • The gap for all employees (full-time and part-time) has reduced from 19.3% in 2015 to 18.1% in 2016 (down from 27.5% in 1997).

So the gap is nearly 10% or 18% depending how you measure it. This FOI request shows how the gap has altered in the past decade or so in the UK. The pay gap is high, and higher than the UK, in many other parts of the EU, where the UK sits about seventh from the top: ‘across Member States, the gender pay gap varied by 21 percentage points, ranging from 5.5 % in Italy and Luxembourg to 26.9 % in Estonia’.  To get some sense of the scale of the problem, in 2015 ‘women’s gross hourly earnings were on average 16.3 % below those of men in the European Union (EU-28) and 16.8% in the euro area (EA-19)’.

Gender pay

So what’s being done?

Something, finally. Successive governments have been determined to open up gender pay. Gender pay transparency is actually a Labour policy from long ago in 2010. Theresa May’s sound and fury has been heard before. Back in 2010 a certain Theresa May, writing in the Guardian no less, already claimed she was ‘clearing a path towards equal pay’ in 2010.What she forgot to say was that the Conservative-Liberal coalition she was part of didn’t actually engage the requirement to publish gender pay, contained in section 78 of (Labour’s) Equality Act of 2010. They wished to pursue a ‘voluntary scheme.’ Alas, few volunteered. Four years into the scheme only 4 companies had reported.

David Cameron, in a second wind of revolutionary ardour, committed to engage mandatory reporting (5 years after not doing so). This would ‘eradicate gender pay inequality’. All companies over 250 employees would have to publish the data. As of April 2017 companies have a year to produce the data and a written statement explaining, if there is a gap, what action will be taken. After 2018 organisations not publishing will be contacted by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The light of transparency will, it is hoped, end pay inequality.

How’s it going so far?

Although a number of companies have been voluntarily publishing the data, as of May 2017 only 7 companies had reported. An email from the GEO from July informed me there were now 26 and, according to a spreadsheet on data.gov.uk, there are now 40.

That’s from an estimated 7,000 companies with 250 or more employees. On a very generous rounding up, that means only 0.57% companies have reported. At this rate, if the Equalities and Human Rights Commission must send out notices next April, they’d better fire up the old email wizard or buy plenty of stamps.

There is also concern over the coverage of the policy, as this paper argued:

Only around 6000…of the 4.7 million businesses in the UK have more than 250 employees. Thus, around 59% of employees would be unaffected by the provisions if reintroduced in their current form.

The government calculated that the pay gap reporting would cover 34% of businesses with a further 12% covered by regulations for public bodies, meaning ‘approximately 8,500 employers, with over 15 million employees’ would be opened up.

The Women and Equalities Select Committee argued that the data needed to be broken down by age and status, and applied to companies with less than 100 employees-moving to 50 in the next two years (the government argued smaller businesses may find it ‘difficult to comply due to system constraints’). May appeared to promise further action on gender pay before the General Election and there was a mention of more data in the manifesto but, like much in that doomed document, we’ll probably never know what, if anything, was intended.

What will publication do?

On a practical level much may depend on how the data is published and who accesses or uses it. Underneath this is a serious question for all transparency policies: what exactly will publication do? While opening up such data is useful, measuring gender inequality is highly complex and a ‘moving target’ and is caught within wider issues of female representation in public life, professions and boardrooms. There is a long way between publishing data on a problem and ‘eradicating’ it.

In the case of the BBC, the controversy has led to a letter and high profile lobbying but will it lead to real change? Tony Hall has set a deadline for action (2020) and promised representation and consultation. Now FT journalists may strike over it and Sheryl Sandburg has weighed in.

The former Secretary of State for Equalities spoke of how publication of gender pay gaps would have benefits in terms of ‘transparency, concentrating the mind and helping people make employment decisions’, all of which are either a bit tautological (transparency will make everything more transparent) or vague. More worryingly, a survey for the Young Women’s Trust found that many business were unconvinced ‘44 per cent of those making hiring decisions say the measure introduced last April will not lead to any change in pay levels’. In the 2016 the Women and Equalities Select Committee concluded that pay publication focuses attention on the issue but is not a solution: ‘It will be a useful stimulus to action but it is not a silver bullet’ and recommended that ‘the government should produce a strategy for ensuring employers use gender pay gap reporting’.

As the committee put it, openness is ‘a first step for taking action rather than an end in itself’. It is hoped that publication could drive up pay and standards-though the evidence of what publishing pay generally does is rather mixed (publishing executive pay appears to push overall pay up not down). Companies could be embarrassed into action but could, equally, ignore it, wait for the storm to blow over or kick it to the long grass with a consultation.

As with all sorts of openness, mandating publicity is only the start. Gender pay data must not sit on a spreadsheet but needs to wielded, repeated and find a place as a staple, symbolic benchmark-and become, like the ‘scores on doors’ restaurant star rating, a mark of quality or reason to avoid.

Images from UK government equality report and EU gender pay gap pages

 


Leave a comment

Scrutinising Brexit: the role of Parliament

number 10

From European Union Committee 1st Report of Session 2016–17 HL Paper 33

Scrutinising Brexit: the role of Parliament (full report here):

        ‘Confidentiality and transparency

  1. One of the key objectives of parliamentary scrutiny is to ensure transparency— to cast a light on the actions of the executive. It is, we suggest, essential thatmany elements of the forthcoming negotiations—for instance, negotiationsaffecting acquired rights, or future cooperation between UK and EU policeforces—should be conducted transparently.
  1. At the same time, some of the most important and complex aspects of theforthcoming negotiations on a new relationship will be sensitive, commercially and politically, and will require a high degree of confidentiality. As the European Commission itself has noted, in the context of trade negotiations,“When entering into a game, no-one starts by revealing his entire strategy tohis counterpart from the outset”.5
  1. It is clear, therefore, that parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiations will haveto strike a balance between, on the one hand, the desire for transparency, and on the other, the need to avoid undermining the UK’s negotiating position.We note that parliamentary scrutiny has shown itself, in practice, to be highly flexible. The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, though a statutory body rather than a Select Committee, conducts its hearings wholly in private; other Committees, such as the House of Commons Defence Committee, may receive confidential briefings, while private meetings arecommon across both Houses.
  1. We acknowledge that certain elements of the forthcoming negotiations,particularly those relating to trade, may have to be conducted confidentially. We would expect parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiations to strike an appropriate balance between transparency and  confidentiality, while achieving the over while achieving the overarching objective of holding the Government effectively to account.’

 

 


Leave a comment

Opening Up The Private Sector

Nominee1

The focus of transparency is almost always on government and public bodies. However, over the past ten years, often outside of the headlines, a growing collection of laws, regulations and technological innovations have gradually shone a light on the private sector too. So what can we know and how far does it go?

Freedom of Information

One of the principle legal routes to accessing information about private bodies is the FOI Act, at least for those companies working on behalf of public bodies. Although it remains a ‘complex’ legal grey area, an FOI can obtain information material ‘held by a private company “on behalf of” a public authority with which it has a contract’. Public sector contracts in the UK are currently worth around £93 billion per year according to the ICO.

Section 5 of the Act also allows government to extend the law to actually cover companies within the scope of the Act itself, something the Public Accounts Committee has urged use of in the past. The last Labour government gave some thought to it in a rather long running consultation between 2007 and 2009. This led to some minor extension to cover ACPO [now called the National Police Chiefs’ Council] and exam bodies. The Coalition and new government took a different approach. Rather than extending the Act under section 5, they have championed the use of new FOI clauses in public sector contracts. It’s not exactly clear how far this is working.

The Scottish government has also consulted on extending its separate FOISA legislation in 2009, and in 2013 local trusts involved in leisure activities were covered. This year they have had a new consultation looking into whether other bodies such as private prisons can now come under FOISA (though this did not include Housing Associations as some hoped).

Alongside government attempts there has been some gradual natural ‘creeping’ outwards of FOI. Network Rail became subject to the Act in March 2015 (see some requests here) and new bodies such as the UK’s Police and Crime Commissioners are also covered (though this report was ‘deeply’ worried about how transparent they were-see page 11-12). The Police Federation is now set to follow. More significant than this ‘creep’ is the influence of decisions from appeal bodies and the courts. An important legal ruling in Fish Legal v Information Commissioner and others [2015] over FOI’s sister Environmental Information Regulations appeared to extend the law to water companies-and this may potentially include other utilities too.

The issue of extension remains a political one. All the major parties remain, at least in principle, supportive of pushing FOI further. The new Labour leadership has also committed [or actually re-committed] itself to extending the Act to private bodies doing public work as well as closing up ‘gaps’ in coverage caused by education and health reform.

Polling by the Scottish Information Commissioner showed that this is a policy that definitely gets the support of the public. A full 76% of Scots asked felt private prisons should be covered with 79% believing that housing associations should be as well. A UK tracker found that 75% of respondents saw extension as an ‘important’ issue and the Information Commissioner has recently offered a range of options to fill the ‘transparency gap’ caused by outsourcing.

Other Laws

It’s not only FOI. A succession of other laws have opened up different parts of the private sector. One recent headline grabbing reform, launched by the Prime Minister in 2013, has been the promise to create a Beneficial Ownership Register under the Small Business and Enterprise Act 2015. What this means is that as of April 2016 Companies House will publish, as Open Data, a list of the ‘Person[s] With Significant Control’ of all UK registered companies. Another eye catching reform has been over Extractives Transparency covering companies involved in natural mineral extraction such as oil or gas. The transposing of EU laws and joining of the International EITI network (see this paper) means all UK registered companies involved in this area will report tax payments, licences and contracts as of next year. Similar small pieces of transparency can be found across many other new laws and regulations. The recent Consumer Rights Act 2015, for example, ‘imposes a duty on letting agents to publish their fees and other information’.

The government has also pushed British dependencies and overseas territories to follow suit and publish Beneficial Ownership information. David Cameron sent a letter in 2014 on the subject to various tax havens. Although Grant Schapps appeared a little cooler on it during a visit to the Caymans, Cameron then pushed the issue again recently in Jamaica as did the new anti-corruption champion Eric Pickles, who appeared to threaten legislation.

Technology

Alongside legal mechanisms, there has been a growing use of online tools to open up companies. The government recently rebooted its Contracts Finder site that details its tenders and contracts with the private sector while other innovators, such as spendnetwork, have created new apps.

There have also been specific ‘transparency’ pushes after problems or controversies. This year David Cameron committed to publish data on property ownership following claims of large amounts of ‘dirty money’ swilling around the London property market and promised new data on gender pay gaps in all companies employing over 250 workers (this one is a bit of a sleight of hand as it was mandatory under the Equalities Act 2010 but was never implemented). These moves, as Jo Bates points out, may have all sorts of political implications. Nor is it clear what effect they may have. Despite hopes publishing salaries online will help lower inflated pay packets evidence indicates that disclosure makes them go up rather than down.

The Politics of Private Sector Transparency

Opening up is often piecemeal. Any politician pushing for any large scale opening up, such as using section 5 of the FOI Act, faces three main problems.

First, there is a potential reluctance to publish and it may be a struggle to get companies to cooperate. Our study of FOI and local government found that most companies do comply with FOI requests. However, any sceptical business can argue it is (i) unnecessary as so much information is published anyway (ii) a costly burden-see this analysis here.

Second, added to this may be the complexity of any change, that will take time and energy. Any large scale opening up only works with international cooperation. So, for example, UK Beneficial Ownership is slightly stymied by the fact that the EU equivalent will only be partially open. The devil, as someone warned of extractives, is in the detail.

Third, given these problems there needs to be a lot of political will, energy and attention to follow through. Any politician or party pushing large scale openness needs either a very good reason or very strong principles. Most likely it will only happen when there is a very obvious problem to solve or a very obvious political benefit (or both if possible).

What Next?

Accident and change will open up different areas. Legal changes, designations or rulings will continually shift the boundaries. Network Rail was re-designated for accounting purposes and FOI coverage was, in that sense, a ‘side product’. The laws in place will already keep opening up new areas through use and Martin Rosenbaum has shown how FOI has opened up not just MPs’ expenses but also restaurant hygiene ratings and MOT tests.

It is often pushed by scandal or concern in a specific area such as over tax avoidance (Beneficial Ownership), gender pay or corruption. It was the poor performance of G4S, for example, that led to recent calls to extend the FOI Act.

 

opencorporates

Finally, experimentation with open data and technology may move openness across the private sector. Chris Taggart, designer of Open Corporates, has created a prototype site Who Controls It? to use the new Beneficial Ownership data. As he points out, apps and websites alone won’t bring change but benefits may ‘be revealed when the beneficial ownership data is combined with other datasets, including government procurement, licences, environmental citations, and other public data.’

It’s unlikely there will be a clear ‘big’ opening up of the private sector comparable to FOI across government. It will problem happen, as many things do, gradually, through a mixture of accident, law, politics and experiment.

To find out more you can read the full IRM report of the UK’s Open Government Partnership commitments here see especially commitments 7 (Beneficial Ownership), 12 (Contracts) and 21 (Extractives).


Leave a comment

What Is Transparency?

transparency

 Position Paper for Visible Mediations of Transparency: Changing Norms & Practices

Through what media, cultural, activist and commercial forms do people learn about transparency issues? What are the dominant messages on transparency?

There are a number of ways through which the public learn about transparency issues. First, transparency often appears in the media and political discourse as a solution to crises. Scandals, exposes or shocks, from political corruption to financial crashes, either create a demand for greater openness or the lack of it is defined as a cause (Roberts 2012). Increased openness is also frequently offered by governments or organisations as a symbol of their ‘difference’ from predecessors/competitors or their commitment to certain values and ways of working. Second, as Fenster (2015) points out, transparency has also ‘captured the popular imagination’ through narratives about whistleblowing or ‘heroic leaks’ such as the MPs’ Expenses or Snowden. Third, consequently, transparency over the last decade has entrenched itself within political discourse as a kind of universal good that is both an instrumental means to a number of positive outcomes (such as improved trust or accountability) and an end in itself (Heald 2006: Meijer 2013). It is, moreover, an idea that is universally supported across the political spectrum (Birchall 2014). The existence of mechanisms such as Freedom of Information laws provide daily reminders in the media of the role and value of openness.

Underneath this universal veneer, transparency can be many things. Indeed, it is in some senses an ‘empty signifier’ that can be ‘filled’ by very different interpretations or emphasis (Stubbs and Snell 2014). Below are just three examples:

  • Transparency as Political Empowerment: it is a highly politicised instrument of empowerment, embodying different democratic norms and values (Fenster 2012)
  • Transparency as Policy Solution: it can be a ‘dramatically satisfying answer to every crisis and question about the state’ (Fenster 2015).
  • Transparency as Economic Improvement: it is a means of increasing efficiency and even wealth, connected to a ‘consumer-citizen’ idea of delivery and performance measurement.

Its dominant message is fundamentally contested. There is a constant, highly politicised struggle to define which of these (or many other) meanings transparency has and what it can and should do (Yu and Harlan 2012: Fenster 2015). For governments it is often imbued with very particular, often neo-liberal, conceptions of state-society relations. More radical conceptions see it as a weapon against exactly these ideas (Birchall 2014). The question of what sort of transparency is created, of who and by who exposes the complex politics underneath (Berliner 2014). Julian Assange and David Cameron are both vocal supporters of transparency but it is unlikely they agree on what it means and who it should effect. On a symbolic level, transparency can be a radical weapon of empowerment, a tool of modernisation and a means of demonstrating an organisation is more ethical, more honest or more trustworthy.

There is rarely a clear distinction on what transparency is produced by e.g. is it through an FOI, a leak or whistleblowing? Transparency can be seen as a continuum or spectrum with government press releases at one end and Snowden at the other. It is most often government that delineates what it sees as the legal ‘limits’ around openness on the borders, for example, of FOI laws or secrecy legislation. It frames the narrative over where transparency begins and ends.

Yet the exact limitations are constantly moving. Disclosures through leaks, semi-authorised disclosures and ‘plants’, innovations such as Open Data, and ‘radical’ actions like Wikileaks can all kick start transparency and gradually shift where the border lies between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ or ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ (Posen 2013). Meaning is greatly complicated by the closing off of certain issues, not least the transparency of citizens through government surveillance, a rarely mentioned aspect of the wider transparency debate that is frequently disconnected or separated (Birchall 2014).

Do people care about liberal transparency (holding power-holders to account)? Do people care about ubiquitous transparency (where their own private lives are open for inspection)?

What evidence can be gleaned of how the public view transparency points to rather mixed and nuanced understanding. There is a broad public awareness of some formal means of transparency e.g. Freedom of Information laws and a general (if vague) support for them. In terms of leaks and ‘radical transparency’ such as Snowden and WikiLeaks public opinion is unclear-in certain contexts, while there exists a powerful supportive ‘folklore’ about whistleblowing , expectations and concerns over, for example, national security can divide opinion as to the ethics and effects (Roberts 2012a: Fenster 2012). Some fascinating experiments indicate that the public support and are reassured by the presence of transparency mechanisms but have little desire to use them, instead preferring to rely on other citizens to operate them and unleash the benefits (see De Fine Licht 2012 and De Licht et al 2014)

Similarly with privacy, there is an awareness of rights and a sense that it is an important issue-surveys register a continual hum of concern over confidential information, data protection and privacy. But this does not appear to generate a general concern or ‘push’ for particular things to happen. Instead there appears to be reactions to sudden ‘punctuated’ privacy ‘scandals’ e.g. as seen in the UK over care.data and the security of personal health information. In some ways, public opinion probably reflects the nuance of an issue that does not really have an obvious or permanent solution, the basis of which are continually challenged and outstripped by technology.

Is there a disconnect between transparency representations and public opinion, and if so, how it should be addressed? Do we have a healthy public debate on transparency issues? What would improve its quality?

There are numerous disconnects over public opinion and transparency

  • Context is key: Although transparency is seen as a ‘good thing’, the battle over what it means and its limits undoubtedly raise a series of competing and contradictory issues. Transparency overlaps with the ethics of leaks, privacy and national security. The view held by the public of any kind of transparency at any one time is highly context dependent. A leaker of classified information like Snowden may be viewed very differently than the anonymous leaker of MPs’ expenses.
  • Flawed assumptions: The underlying idea of transparency, that information empowers citizens as rational calculators, is misplaced, though politicians continue to press it. All receivers of information have biases, heuristics and assumptions that shape ideas and views and may interrupt the flow or change the meaning of disclosed information. All transparency systems and instruments are shaped by the environment in which they are created and their political context (Meijer 2013).
  • Competing visions and meanings: The debate over transparency is ongoing but may further complicate discussion rather than resolve it as different sides pull against each other. Governments seek a de-politicised (or re-directed) transparency focused on efficiency or improving services while activists seek greater openness of different parts of the state (and increasingly the private sector). The different language and aims may push discussion in divergent directions.

Select Bibliography

Berliner, Daniel. (2014). ‘The Political Origins of Transparency’. The Journal of Politics, 76(2): 479-491

Birchall, C. (2014). Radical Transparency?. Cultural Studies↔ Critical Methodologies, 14(1), 77-88.

De Fine Licht, J., Naurin, D., Esaiasson, P., & Gilljam, M. (2014). When does transparency generate legitimacy? Experimenting on a context‐bound relationship. Governance, 27(1), 111-134.

Fenster, M. (2015). ‘Transparency in Search of a Theory’. European Journal of Social Theory, 18(2), 150-167.

Heald, D. (2006). ‘Transparency as an Instrumental Value’.

Meijer, A. (2013). ‘Understanding the complex dynamics of transparency’. Public Administration Review, 73(3), 429-439

Stubbs, Rhys and Snell, Rick, (2014) ‘Pluralism in FOI Law Reform: Comparative Analysis of China, Mexico and India’. The University of Tasmania Law Review Vol. 33, No.1, 2014, 141-164.

Yu, Harlan and Robinson, David G., (2012) ‘The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’ (February 28, 2012). 59 UCLA L. Rev. Disc. 178

Roberts, Alasdair S., (2012) ‘Transparency in Troubled Times’. Tenth World Conference of the International Ombudsman Institute, November 2012; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper 12-35.

 

 

 


Leave a comment

New Article: Assessing Government Transparency: An Interpretive Framework

opengovernmentcloud

Authors: Albert Meijer, Paul ’t Hart, and Ben Worthy

Abstract

How can we evaluate government transparency arrangements? While the complexity and contextuality of the values at stake defy straightforward measurement, this article provides an interpretative framework to guide and structure assessments of government transparency. In this framework, we discern criteria clusters for political transparency (democracy, the constitutional state, and social learning capacity) and for administrative transparency (economy/efficiency, integrity, and resilience). The framework provides a structured “helicopter view” of the dimensions that are relevant for a contextual assessment of transparency. An illustrative case discussion of the introduction of Freedom of Information (FOI) in the United Kingdom demonstrates its utility.

You can view a copy hereAdministration & Society-2015-Meijer-0095399715598341


Leave a comment

The Tax Transparency Letter: Three Quick Questions

13600937993_fc359234c5_k

George Osborne has promised a ‘transparency revolution’ by offering to every house a detailed breakdown of where our tax goes-a kind of annual Where Does My Money Go[1] through our letter box. You can see some examples on the Treasury Flickr site here.

The Chancellor called it ‘a revolution in transparency and it will show how hardworking taxpayers have to pay for what governments spend’. It has been criticised as biased and self-serving and, of course, is just one of many ways of presenting how money is spent.

I just wanted to ask a few quick questions about the wider hopes for what the policy may do.

1.What Will the Public Think?

How people take in information is rather nuanced and complicated-more so that the rather simple ‘information=understanding’ chain that is presumed. Voters often display a negativity bias-as this paper explains they often punish poor performance but do not ‘reward good’. There are also delay effects as people think about things afterwards. How information is processed relates to our expectations and pre-dispositions-there was not a huge loss in trust in MPs during the expenses scandal because few trusted them beforehand.

2.Will They Trust What They Read?

There is low trust in politics, as we know (the headline here says it all). We may be rather cynical about leaflets and other political literature. There is also a lack of faith in statistics-interestingly, one of the key issues around the 2015 General Election is the public simply not feeling the economic growth they are told is taking place. The Treasury and HMRC may also not be the most popular or trusted of organisations-see these recent headlines here.

3. Will it Change Behaviour?

Finally, will this information change behaviour, particularly how an individual votes? Voting is a black box. One thing we do know is that information does not always play the role it could-again the MPs’ expenses is a good example. Despite clear evidence, voters did not or could not act on poor behaviour. This great paper explains how the public like having the opportunity to know more but may prefer others to do the research or accountability for them.

So the idea that we will read, judge and act is over-simplifying considerably what actually goes on. And this is all dependent on whether people actually read it.

[1] Enter your salary to see where your tax goes


Leave a comment

What is Transparency?

Image

Roughly we can agree, as Professor Christopher Hood and Professor David Heald put it, that transparency means letting ‘those on the outside being able to look in’ (‘peering through the window’-like the glass of the German Reichstag above).

But if we dig deeper it gets complicated. Not everyone agrees on what sort of transparency they want. In fact, how you define it helps you decide whether it is good or bad.

Take Freedom of Information. On one level the law itself is quite clear. FOI is the right to ask questions of a public body, bounded by rules. The problem is not everyone sees eye to eye on what ‘real’ FOI means and how it is working.  David Cameron said ‘real freedom of Information…is the money that goes in and the results that come out’ and claimed that requests about processes or decision-making were ‘furring up the arteries’ of government (see FOI man’s analysis here). In David Cameron’s mind it is more about driving economic recovery than visitors to Chequers.

Tony Blair went further and spoke about how FOI, intended for ‘the public’, was being abused by opponents

The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet (Blair 2010, 516-517).

Passing FOI was one of his two biggest regrets. Obama is fast becoming another leader who went from first term transparency advocate to second term holder of secrets. It is unlikely that his offer of NSA transparency via a website to help inform the public about the intelligence service will satisfy his critics.

There is similar confusion around Open Data. It’s not clear whether Open Data is about letting people access information, a sort of ‘FOI plus’, or about re-using it. As this paper points out, Open Data mixes all sorts of political and technical ideas, hopes and concepts that don’t fit very well together.

It’s still not clear exactly what the UK government wants to see happening with all this data. Is all this new online data designed to make the economy grow? Or is it there to get the public more involved in politics or better understand what government does? Nor is it clear what information the public want: is it about salaries or road salting? (see my discussion of this in evidence to the Public Administration Committee here). There are signs, as Jonathan Gray recently pointed out, that the UK government is seeking to shift the aims of its Transparency Agenda, changing the narrative from the ‘political’ to the ‘economic’.

The difficulty is that transparency is many things at once. It is partly economic. It is also about making politicians accountable for what they do-sometimes they are minor matters and sometimes big ones (and odd ones such as MPs’ portraits). It is also there to help NGOs and others, providing a new weapon in their armoury to campaign against everything from library closures to polluted air. Yet it can be, and often is, a practical tool to help people in their everyday lives. For all the attention given to MPs’ expenses, FOI or online data is most often used to help individuals.

So how can we define it? George Orwell defined liberty as the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear:

‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’ (from his unpublished preface to Animal Farm)

We could try and rework this to fit transparency:

‘Transparency is the right to ask questions those in power don’t want asked and look for information they don’t want us to see’.

This not to say this is how it used. In fact the evidence is most people use Open Data or FOI in a relatively non-political way. But this is the key, driving idea. The problem for the future is that, without agreement on what it is, we can’t agree on what transparency policies can do and who they will benefit. It is even harder to see if the policies are a success or not when we don’t agree what success means.