Saturday, June 16, 2012
The story so far . . .
25th May: In his interview with Simon Pipe, broadcast this week on SaintFM, DfID Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell sang the praises of Transparency in public life. But when asked why none of the British Overseas Territories has Freedom of Information Legislation in place he said it was a matter for the territories’ local administrations, not for him. I believe St. H...elena would benefit from more transparency. I’ve set out a few ideas below and would like to set up an informal discussion group – open to everyone including those within government – to discuss how this could be achieved. Details below.
Transparency benefits everyone. If you see a government decision and you ask yourself “how on earth did they come to that conclusion?” transparency tells you the answer. It benefits you – you understand – and, importantly, it benefits government, as I will now explain.
Imagine that a decision has been taken that disadvantages you or your friends, family or business interests. If you don’t know how the decision was reached, you might think that you have been deliberately victimised. Maybe someone who dislikes you has had influence over the decision? But if the decision-making process is transparent you know that didn’t happen. Moreover, because it’s a transparent process you know that couldn’t have happened. Everybody benefits from knowing the decision was objective, not personal.
Imagine a decision is announced and widely criticised. If government explains how it took the decision, everyone can understand. And if there is information the government didn’t have, or ways of approaching the issue they didn’t think of, someone else can spot it and fill in the gaps. If a government (any government) hides behind secrecy, people usually assume the worst – malice or incompetence – neither of which is a healthy view of a government’s decisions.
Should everything be transparent? No. Some things must remain confidential. But what changes with transparency is how the decision to publish is taken. At present, everything is secret unless government decides to publish it. In a transparent government, everything is public unless there is a good reason to make it a secret. By applying the secrecy test that way around much more gets published.
Could I use it to find out stuff about my neighbours? No. Freedom of Information only covers government information and always specifically excludes personal and private information.
Do we need a full Freedom of Information act like the UK or USA? I don’t think so. Life here is much less complex and I’m sure local legislation could meet our need without adding any significant expense. We don’t need to create a new bureaucracy! Something simple that implements the “it’s published unless there’s a reason not to” test would do.
Finally, people will naturally trust an open government much more than a secretive one. If we can’t trust our government to make fair and sensible decisions, we are in a pretty dire situation. Anything that helps us gain that trust has to be worth considering.
I could fill this newspaper with arguments but in the end, what I think isn’t that important. I hope this is a shared view that others will support. This is not an anti-government campaign – it’s not an anti-anyone campaign. I believe improving transparency here benefits everyone. If you do too, please contact me – call me at Moonbeams on 2944; at Burgh House on 3235; email firstname.lastname@example.org or see the campaign page “Transparency Saint Helena” on Facebook.
"...the public are our ultimate paymaster and we should therefore be open with them, unless there is a very good reason not to
be" - Guidance issued to UK Civil Servants.
I (JT) also posted my views on the by-election turnout, and how this relates to Transparency, on my Random Thoughts blog.