Page last updated at 12:39 GMT, Monday, 26 January 2009

Score one for public openness

Parliament in the fog
An online campaign helped lift the lid on MPs expenses

The internet makes openness in politics not only possible but unstoppable, says Bill Thompson.

Last Wednesday was a good day for anyone with an interest in politics.

As well as finding out just how much President Obama's administration is going to differ from its predecessor, we were treated to a good old-fashioned government fumble as Gordon Brown managed to change his policy on the disclosure of MP's expenses without, it seems, bothering to tell any of his Ministers.


Just how much MPs should be expected to disclose about their spending has been a contentious political issue for some time. After an extensive legal battle the High Court ruled last year that over one million receipts submitted between 2004 and 2008 should be published, a move that clearly unsettled many MPs.

Unhappy with the outcome, the Government proposed to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act and offered instead to publish a more detailed breakdown of how allowances are spent.

This idea proved remarkably unpopular, and when David Cameron announced that the Conservative Party would not support it the chances of the new rules being passed by the House of Commons diminished greatly.

U-Turn

So just as Barack Obama settled in to the Oval Office, the Prime Minister told MPs that the planned vote would not take place, only an hour after Downing Street had said that it was to go ahead. Many of his colleagues, including Leader of the House Harriet Harman, seemed unaware of the change of policy until some time afterwards.

The political machinations behind the proposal - and its withdrawal - are, of course, rich and complex, as any legislation that touches on the financial interests of our elected representatives inevitably must be, and the reasons why Gordon Brown decided to abandon the plan probably reflect a complex balance between present embarrassment and the chances of future humiliation.

Bill Thompson
The net may have scored its first big political win in the UK
Bill Thompson

And President Obama may indirectly have helped the case for openness when he pointed out in his Inaugural Address that "those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government".

But one major factor must surely have been the online campaign waged against the plan by a coalition of organisations led by MySociety, the charitable project that has built TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem and many other websites that promote transparency, accountability and openness at all levels of government.

People power

When the proposals were announced, MySociety stated clearly that it objected to them, pointing out that full details of those MPs who voted in favour of limiting disclosure would be available to their constituents via the TheyWorkForYou website, invited people to write to their MP using the WriteToThem website, and set up a Facebook group to rally support - because you're nothing in politics these days without a presence on Facebook.

The group got 7,000 members within a week, and is currently nearly at ten thousand even though the campaign was successful, while 90% of MPs received messages from constituents. The protest was covered on the BBC, in the Guardian, The Times, and The Telegraph, as well as hundreds of blogs and websites.

This is likely to have impressed Conservative leader David Cameron enough for him to decide that annoying his backbench MPs, many of whom oppose publishing details of their expenses, was worth it in order to be seen as on the side of openness.

The net may have scored its first big political win in the UK, but the campaign matters, not just because it was effective, but because it took off fast enough to make a difference. Governments typically rely on the element of surprise when they seek to introduce contentious measures, planning in secret and moving quickly on the assumption that any opposition will take time to rally.

US President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama has promised to usher in a new era of openness.

They can never make that assumption safely again, and this in itself may have the biggest long term impact on the way the political system operates in the network age. Back in the 1980s, when I was involved with the Community Computing Network, one of our slogans was "if it can do it for them, it can do it for you". MySociety has shown just what that means.

Unpalatable

Another side to this whole argument concerns the information that is being published. Trying to exempt MPs from laws that apply to all other public officials was distasteful, but it may well be the last gasp of a system that is predicated on a fast-disappearing ability to control the flow of information.

The new US administration is committed to open government, making information available and, crucially, offering it online through sites like USASpending.gov that allow database searches and even let third-party sites gain access through published application program interfaces (APIs).

This is the future, and it is one that every MP should be aware of. Instead of filing paper receipts that have to be sorted and filed and indexed - a process that may cost upwards of one million pounds for the 2004-08 information shortly to be released - MPs will find themselves using the sort of databases that they are happy to force on the rest of us all the time.

After all, if we are to have a National Identity Register to store all our personal details - and a massive index of every email sent or web page visited - surely we can ask MPs to file their expense claims online so that they can be tracked properly?

Such a system could even be accessible in real-time, instead of relying on annual reports, so that we can spot any unusual purchasing patterns on a day-to-day basis.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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