An open government will not always succeed – but a closed government is doomed to fail

Secrecy creates a pressure that can lead to explosive consequences for both politicians and civil servants, according to Andrew Greenway

Open government. A concept that practically invites cynical snorts; one so satirically rich it provided the title of Yes,Minister’s very first episode. It is widely accepted that the default position of government — any government — is to withhold whatever information it has. Yet whenever opacity builds up a head of steam, it has to go somewhere. Smarter administrations allow for cracks that relieve the pressure. Those who don’t endure explosive consequences for politicians and civil servants alike. An open government will not always succeed. But a closed government is fundamentally unsustainable, and guaranteed to fail. 

Open government enjoyed a brief fashionable period in the early 2010s. While administrations might publicly opt-in to openness for a time, the fact that they are actively doing so is telling in itself. A politician who espouses open government is much like one who fails to wear a tie. Here is somebody doing something that the majority of the public would consider wholly unworthy of note. Yet in the context of Westminster and Whitehall, this is a considered, courageous and attention-seeking stand.

In most of the discussions I had around openness when I was working in the civil service, secrecy paired with safety. Controlling the flow of public information was safer than the alternative. The default position was not telling anybody anything. For certain realms this argument holds water. I understand that there are areas of national security where information asymmetry between the state and public can make sense. Control matters. Loose lips sink ships.

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Enthusiasm for openness diminishes as administrations age. It becomes harder to cram more skeletons into the cupboard. Since the election of the Coalition government in 2010, the percentage of withheld Freedom of Information requests has risen inexorably. As the pressure builds on Brexit, DExEU rejoices in its place at the foot of the transparency league table.

Areas where there is a genuine strategic value to secrecy account for a tiny minority of all government business. No matter what the minister might think, it is not a national security risk that the government’s policy on disability benefits or Brexit has no connection to reality. Quite the opposite, you might argue. 

National security is not the only appeal to obscurantism. Commercial sensitivity is used as a fig leaf for locking up policy papers with business implications. At best, this indicates the fact this is a set of choices where companies large enough to have formidable PR and lobbying operations may be affected. Bless their sensitivity. SMEs’ sensitivities rarely enjoy such cosseting. 

It’s said that the only guarantee of what the future holds is that things will change. It’s almost certain that whatever information government withholds from view will eventually become known. An obvious counter – areas of national security – is the exception that proves the rule. Government is actually quite good at keeping real secrets secret when it has too. Foggy opacity is also applied to those times where everyone put on a good show but all was utter chaos behind the scenes. It always clears. The only question is when.

Theoretical transparency
Perhaps the more general aversion to openness that defines government behaviour is down to leaders’ brief tenure. If the average time spent in a ministerial or top civil service job is less than three years, the incentives acting on those people are not to ensure things do not go wrong. The incentives are to ensure nobody finds out things went wrong on their watch. 

As a consequence, departments tend to maintain a position of theatrical transparency over true openness. For the technocrats, this usually comes in the form of the dreaded ‘consultation exercise’. The press demands carefully chosen red meat as a distraction. Agreeing to prise open the National Archive of government papers 20 years after they were written was an act of purest Whitehall genius. A magnanimous gesture to transparency, it is still calibrated perfectly to ensure all the potentially embarrassed participants have long moved on or are dead. Even if that fails and the exposed civil servants are still on the payroll, 20 years is plenty long enough for the old rule of ‘tragedy + time = comedy’ to apply to all but the most egregious failures.

Enthusiasm for openness diminishes as administrations age. It becomes harder to cram more skeletons into the cupboard. Since the election of the Coalition government in 2010, the percentage of withheld Freedom of Information requests has risen inexorably.

In fairness to both politicians and senior civil servants, openness is a function of an entire political system. Making it a reality is a task that goes way beyond government. Openness, trust and the reliquishing of control that implies are all indivisible. Rational officials who are broadly comfortable with the idea of working in the open might worry about how institutions like the press will twist the words they put on social media on in a blog post. They usually end up doing one of two things; retreating into pre-internet methods of communication, or scrubbing their pronouncements of all authenticity and interest. With a few noble exceptions, most top civil servants are painfully dull on social media (ex-perm secs are a different story).

Given how embedded our national institutions are in an adversarial battle of political hide and seek, there’s an argument to be had about whether the British people want to know what their government is doing. Perhaps the ever-present opportunity to have a good moan is what really makes our political culture tick.

Even so, it is in both the government and the civil service’s interest to be more open. Governments and officials that operate in the dark can’t see what else is in the room they’re stumbling about in. It only takes one match to reveal it is full of gelignite.

Sam Trendall

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