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Transparency is many things at once

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What is transparency? Despite the word being everywhere not everyone agrees on what it means.

Take Freedom of Information. On one level the law is quite clear: “FoI is the right to ask questions of a public body, bounded by rules.” However, not everyone agrees on what this means and how it is working.

David Cameron recently said: “Real Freedom of Information … is the money that goes in and the results that come out.” He said requests about processes or decision making were “furring up the arteries” of government.

Tony Blair said FoI, intended for ‘the public’, was being abused by opponents, and that passing the act was one of his biggest regrets.

Local authorities view heavy use by businesses for competitive advantage as an abuse of the ‘spirit’ of FoI.

It is partly economic. It is about making politicians accountable. It is a new weapon. It is a practical tool. And it is also an important principle

There is similar confusion with open data. It’s not clear whether open data is about access to information or its reuse. Is all this new online data designed to make the economy grow? Or is it there to get the public more involved in politics?

Nor is it clear what information the public want.

Without agreement it is difficult to know what transparency policies can do and who they will benefit. It is harder to see if the policies are a success when we don’t agree what success means.

The difficulty is that transparency is many things at once. It is partly economic. It is also about making politicians accountable. It is also there to help NGOs and others, providing a new weapon in their armoury to campaign against everything from library closures to polluted air.

Yet it can also be a practical tool to help people in their everyday lives. For all the attention given to MPs’ expenses, FoI or online data is most often used to help individuals.

Transparency is also an important principle. If freedom, as George Orwell defined it, is “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”, transparency is an important part of this. We could define is as a right to ask the questions that those in power don’t want asked and to look for information they don’t want us to see.

When politicians talk of making the government more open they often mean open in the way they want. When they speak about abuse they mean not only the minority wasting time but those asking the difficult questions.

Ben Worthy, Freedom of Information expert and lecturer, Birkbeck College, University of London

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