Because biscuits aren't scary.


Open Source Government

When was is that the government became the enemy of the people?

Take the Department of Transport, for example.

As somebody who drives over a thousand miles a week on average, I'm regularly infuriated by the government's lunatic driving policies. I don't want to die any more than the next person but at the same time I simply don't believe some of their claims.

Remember the M4 bus lane and the 40 mph speed limit that was introduced at the same time? The government's best boffins insisted that this would, counter-intuitively, increase average speeds. Why then, a few years later was the speed quietly increased back to 50 and then 60? Clearly the boffins were wrong.

Remember some newspapers attempts to get data on accidents supporting speed camera positions? Incredibly, some police forces, went to extreme lengths to oppose the Freedom of Information requests?

Remember the Jeremy Clarkson interview with the then transport secretary, Mr Ladyman? Clarkson asked for evidence and ineffectually argued over statistics. Ladyman insisted that they had the evidence but that they hadn't published it yet because they were still working on it. Working on it? Is that the same as 'cooking the books'?

Why on earth would our government, servant of the people, want to hide information from us? Two years later, they're still 'working on it'? Could it be that the evidence doesn't support their policy position and they're busy massaging the raw data to support their own prejudices? Worse still, as a tax payer, I'm paying to have myself deceived.

If the government had published their information as soon as they recorded it, hundreds of people would have quickly (and for free) done the difficult statistics to establish reasonable conclusions from it. More importantly, because this would have been done in a spirit of openness and honesty, the conclusions would have had more respect and people would be more likely to obey speed limits that are worthwhile.

Sir Humprey would argue that making Civil Service advice public would change the nature of that advice and open up Civil Servants to attack with no right of reply. But that is exactly the point. We don't want them plotting behind closed doors. It worries us and makes us hostile even when they do the right thing. Moreover, Civil Servants need to up their game. They shouldn't be associated with politically controversial, partisan politics in private any more than in public. That is a role of universities, think tanks and lobby groups. Instead the servants of the people should be able to advise ministers on policy ideas, not lead on them.

Far from representing a demotion for Sir Humprey, it would require a much higher calibre of official, with the intellectual rigour to separate his own prejudices from the argument and to be able to serve either Labour or Conservatives equally well. What would diminish is politicians and bureaucrats' power to impose their own ideas based on partial evidence. If they wanted to build a new dual carriageway in the West Country they would have to win the argument for it. It might be the right thing to do but if it is then why does it have to be built by stealth, building by-passes bigger than they need to be and then later joining them all up at greater expense? Who knows, if they treated the people of the West Country like adults, perhaps they might find more agreement than they expected?

Instead of making everything secret by default and forcing the people to fight to have it released, a new government should make everything open by default. Only specific exceptions (e.g. national defence) would be allowed. Any scandal to emerge would be drowned by the sheer volume from every corner of government. It would be a cathartic experience. This would not be just in the negative sense, as in the disinfectant of sunlight, but also in the release of more information and energy. With Open Government, we could all be involved in decisions that affect us, rather than a select few, saving the government money and making decisions faster. Government would be on our side, facilitating our decisions, rather than against us.

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