Transparency is an empty buzzword used to apply a tiny fix to a big problem – our distrust of politicians – writes Joshua Lachkovic. Let’s fix that, and stop banging on about open data.
Yesterday, YouGov, in conjunction with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, published a report on what the public thought of our politicians. The results were damning for our political class, revealing that 62 per cent of the public think politicians lie and you can’t believe a word they say. 38 per cent said that a system with non-political experts over politicians would make for a better government. 58 per cent apparently think it doesn’t make much difference to their daily lives who wins at a general election.
These statistics show a public that is pretty hard to win over, and one of top Cameron adviser Steve Hilton’s many ideas to achieve that goal was to introduce transparency into the processes of government. I wonder, though, how effective a strategy this could ever hope to be, when it seems that transparency is more of a sop than a sincere expression of intention and philosophy.
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Steve Hilton’s announced departure came at the start of a weekend that would end in an election: an election where Vladimir Putin “won” nearly 100 per cent of the vote in Chechnya. The Russian government’s official radio station The Voice of Russia posted a story on Sunday telling its people that the rest of the world looks on in awe at the “openness and transparency of Russia’s presidential election”. You have to laugh – that’s all there is to do – but it does make you think comparatively about privacy in this country.
No-one believes that the webcam videos that Russian officials have put together mean that these elections are transparent, any more than people think that these elections are fair or open. Looking at the tweets and statuses that kicked off around the west this morning, we clearly knew they weren’t. Transparency like that reveals nothing.
No-one I speak to believes for a second that Russia has a democratic election process, yet for all of the hatred towards our own system and its politicians, 67 per cent of people still consider Britain to be a democracy.
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How stark a contrast is there between the transparency gifted to the British and to the Russian publics? And is there demand for more? A significant porton of Hilton’s agenda was based on the idea, almost certainly focus-grouped, that the public “wanted” transparency and that transparency would be a good thing for democracy.
Demos published a paper, The Data Dividend, this week, and wrote an accompanying blog post. The paper is about public data and public desire versus public need for it. The problem, Max Wind-Cowie argued, isn’t that the public would forever be against so much data available online, it’s that we’ve not been sold the idea well enough: after all, despite the warnings, we all sign away our lives on Facebook and don’t really care what Google does with our data, because the positives outweigh the negatives. We enjoy using Facebook more than we worry about what it does with our data.
In a call for transparency in January, Ben Gummer MP, backed by Philip Johnston in the Telegraph, argued for an online account that showed where all taxpayers’ money was going. It’s not that this information is entirely unavailable: Johnston freely admits that “most people don’t read the [Treasury] Red Book and, in any case, the sums involved are so stupendously large as to be meaningless.” There is data there, if the public really wanted it. Evidently it is desired in a more accessible form by someone.
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I agree that our public officials must be held to account, but something has always bugged me about this never-ending crusade for “transparency”, not least because it remains so ill-defined. Transparency is a buzzword used to append a tiny fix to a much greater problem. The public’s distrust of politicians isn’t going to change just because we have access to a broader range of data from a single portal.
We already have access to a lot of data, as flawed as the methods of retrieval are. Most people do not care. This may in itself be rather depressing to the reader but it is a realistic appraisal of the public apathy towards our governors.
What will change popular opinion of government and politicians is action: action coming from whatever party is at the controls of government, as long as they do something instead of worrying about this manufactured desire for transparency. Steve Hilton should consider that during his year off.