Before I begin, let’s consider the great David Cameron Transparency Diet:
“It is our ambition to become one of the most transparent governments in the world.”
“We spend, or the system seems to spend, an age dealing with freedom of information requests which are all about processes and actually what the public or the country want to know is how much money are you spending, is that money being spent well and what are the results.”
One of the many nails in the coffin of my interest in party politics is the way in which all politicians rail against questions about ‘process’, and the way the last few governments have sought to pick and choose what they consider to be acceptable for transparency. The question they don’t have the courage or courtesy to answer is always about the way that they behave when not in front of the cameras. They want to pretend that their business is always high-minded, principled, decent – they don’t want us to see the shoddy, incompetent or mean-spirited moments, even though every organisation and process created by humankind contains a measure of all three.
This is the reason that I think politicians don’t like Freedom of Information. Because they can publish all the tractor production figures that they care to, but FOI not only allows people to ask not only for the inconvenient facts and figures that may have been buried, it also allows us to ask how things happened. It allows us to ask how things work, how they are achieved. It’s the process that interests me, because it tells me about the people who govern me. The internet tells me that I am wrong to think that Otto Von Bismarck said “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made”, but whoever said it, I think that’s the problem. Politicians need to believe that they are respected and respectable, and what scares them is being obliged to show their workings out. From big issues like the NHS Risk Register to eye-catching ephemera like how Cameron signs off suck-up texts to Rebecca Brooks, how things get done is just as important as what those things are.
To give you a tiny but perhaps instructive example: in February, the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove gave a speech about adoption. Gove was himself adopted, and I do not doubt his sincerity in wanting to see the adoption process work more effectively. The thrust of Gove’s speech appears to be the need to protect vulnerable children from unfit parents, and the desirability of removing artificial barriers to adoption like the ethnicity of the prospective adopters. However, Gove added some texture with eye-catching examples of how adoption currently works, including the remarkable claim that prospective adopters had in one case been refused adoption unless they bought a kettle with a shorter electrical flex.
The media swallowed Gove’s anecdote uncritically – indeed, the Mail and Telegraph embellished it with a ‘ban’ that wasn’t mentioned in the speech. Of course, Gove is a former journalist, and I don’t think it’s cynical to suggest that the kettle-flex story was his way of getting a headline for what might otherwise have been a worthy but overlooked speech.
I’ve met many people who work on adoption and a relative was on an adoption panel for a long time – based on my experience, I couldn’t believe that such ludicrous criteria would be used to prevent people from adopting a child. And in any case, any adopter with any commitment would be down to Argos demanded the shortest kettle flex known to man rather than whinging to anyone else. The story was so lame, I assumed that Gove and his advisers had made it up. So I decided to make an FOI request to the Department for Education asking for the name of the council who refused the adoption, and whether any other criteria were used to refuse the adoption, on the assumption that this silly fiction would be exposed.
I was wrong: http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/kettles. I wouldn’t trust Gove on the basis that he seems to be a slippery customer, but the civil servant responding to my request has confirmed that the Department does know the name of the council concerned, and the word of a civil servant is good enough for me.
The DfE’s account is therefore that Gove asked his Adoption Czar Martin Narey for some examples to illustrate his speech, and the kettle flex example was one of them. So a couple that have adopted five children are told that they could not adopt another until they change their kettle (or actually, the power lead on their kettle). This is such a big deal to them that rather than buying the new kettle lead and getting on with their life, they tell their story to a Government Adoption Adviser as an example of the iniquities of the adoption system. He thinks it is such a big deal that he cites it to the Education Secretary. And nobody thinks to check it out. Nobody wants to know the Council’s side of the story. There is no evidence that anybody in the DfE contacted the Council to check the accuracy of the story. Despite the fact that it’s significant enough to be used as a headline-grabber in a Cabinet Minister’s speech, the Department have a line of “not intervening” in individual cases, so they won’t actually do anything about it. So if the couple concerned invented or embellished the story, nobody found out, and yet if the story is true, nobody acted on it. They didn’t even write to the Council to tell them to buck their ideas up.
So this is the process. Gove uses a daft example that apparently hasn’t been checked out to get a headline that is irrelevant to the good points he was actually making. In doing so, he allows an impression to be created that the adoption process is haphazard and stupid, which is disrespectful to all the people who work on it. The story could be completely untrue, or completely partial. There could have been a dozen good reasons why this couple didn’t get an adoption approved, and this may have been the smallest of them. And by not contacting the council, there is no possibility of any such inconvenient fact coming to light.
So what Gove probably should have said was ‘I’ve been told this story but I haven’t checked it out so I don’t know if it’s true’. I don’t think he would have got the same headlines.
This isn’t Watergate. I should have a better example (I’m working on one). The worst that can be said about Gove’s Kettle-Flex Shocker is that he is apparently not the kind of man who looks at a yarn like this and says “Really?”. If he had demanded that the story be stood up, I think that there would be some evidence of that in terms of emails, or letters, or something else. But nevertheless, the reason why I think the request was worth it, and why I think FOI causes some politicians disquiet is the fact that it gives the kind of healthy scepticism of which Gove seems bereft somewhere to go. We can get under the skin of things and ask awkward questions. Someone I trained last week said that her approach to email was to write every one in the expectation that it would end up on the front page of the paper. If politicians have nothing to hide from process questions, they have nothing to fear.