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Column Why should our government have the right to hide from its citizens?

Our leaders are spending our money in our names, writes Aaron McKenna – so why won’t they let us know how?

Aaron McKenna wrote for about the ‘Lost Decade’ Ireland is facing into, and why we need a new vision for the nation to bring us through it. In this second part of his series on ways forward he explores government transparency and efficiency, a cornerstone in building a new state.

IT IS AN offence to the principals of modern democracy and to the intelligence of a sovereign citizen that government should conduct its business shrouded in as much mystery and obfuscation as possible. Opaque government is a cover for incompetent government, and we have plenty of both.

The Irish government is an inefficient beast that wastes enough public money to make one wonder if we could have had a tax holiday every five or ten years during the boom if only so much hadn’t been flittered away. We know for fact thanks to various reports and measures forced on the reluctant inhabitants of Dublin 2 that the Irish government only had to lift a few fingers to produce several hundred million worth of efficiencies over a few months.

According to the first Croke Park Agreement implementation report the government managed to save €47.8 million when the Office of Public Works improved the manner in which it buys things like computers, pens and paper. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Councils and universities managed to save themselves millions by adopting the rather innovative strategy of tendering together for essential services they all use, like electricity and fuel. Fingal and South Dublin councils saved themselves €4.1m a year; and a group of universities and ITs saved themselves 40% by tendering together in a deal that saved Trinity College alone €1m a year.

The Department of Foreign Affairs chopped €300,000 a year off its travel bill. Not remarkable until one considers that Cork County Council, a body with only slightly fewer international commitments it seems, chopped €500,000 a year off its travel bills.

‘The government that spends your money is not well disposed to pesky questions’

If one is wondering quite how the council managed to do so I’d recommend beginning the Freedom of Information request process now so as to have it over with by summer and produce results by the autumn. The government that spends your money in your name is not particularly well disposed to pesky questions as to how or why they spend what. Anyone embarking on the FoI journey can expect to be met with walls of bureaucratic rigmarole and downright obstruction.

FoI was brought in following scandals revealed in the 1990’s, and Albert Reynolds promised us ‘government behind a pane of glass.’ The legislation was gutted a few years later, reportedly at the insistence of senior civil servants supported by politicians not too eager on this brave new world. Our new government promised to revert to the old legislation, but then kicked the process to a review and we can expect something a full year or more after they got into power.

Those avidly chasing FoI requests, like, report major ongoing stonewalling on the part of the public service. Documents that could be given as easy to search excel files are printed, scanned and sent as PDF documents that need to be studied the laborious old fashioned way.

A favourite scare tactic is to quote obscene amounts of money to process FoI requests that, on appeal, end up costing 95% less; as in the case of chasing Oireachtas expenses and being quoted €2,440 for a job that eventually cost €100 after much wrangling and a €75 appeal.

‘The incompetent and the intransigent benefit the most’

The incompetent and the intransigent benefit the most from opaque government, and that is exactly why we must truly lift the veil on government and not only bring back our original FoI act, but go further and make 99% of government business open to public scrutiny.

Government efficiency follows government transparency, because transparency makes the inefficiencies plain for all to see and leads to easier accountability.

So let’s make government transparency a constitutional requirement. Let’s clamour for a referendum to insert the idea of 99% transparency into the basic law of this country, so no government can ever again attack our right to know what is being done in our names.

The public service is a mostly digitised body, working from computers and in databases. Let’s utilise that existing infrastructure and design our public service to publish every document, every report, every internal memo, every expense receipt and every email unless it is marked as containing sensitive or personal information in an opt-out system.

Rather than having FoI officers in every public body to ‘assist’ in the release of information, let’s have them there to handle the material that is opted out of publication or redacted in part.

We can adopt a simple set of rules to determine if something shouldn’t be published: If it would endanger the security of the state or human life; or if it would break confidence with a private individual (for example, medical or tax records), another state (diplomatic communications) or corporate body (private interactions, of which there should be few) government was dealing with.

‘If we’re to have more transparency, we have to grow up’

The information commissioner, who deals with FoI appeals, can take on an expanded role to keep government honest. I’m not normally for expanding quangos, but in this case a quango to force the government to be transparent would pay for itself many times over. One might also be mindful that any arguments that universal FoI would be prohibitively expensive are likely to come from the same sources that quote nearly €2,500 for requests that eventually cost €100.

Why should government have the right to hide from its citizens? Apart from, say, covering their rear ends what reasonable reason could a politician or public body have for not releasing their expense claim forms and receipts? Internal memos on the provision of services? Procurement requests?

How many patterns of government incompetence have only come to light well after the fact thanks to a well struck FoI request? Would Cork County Council have been over spending by €500,000 on travel expenses if the receipts and reasons for each trip were published each month? Or public money spent on first class travel, hair stylists or taxis at 4am on junkets?

More importantly, would failings in our health service be as endemic if we had a transparent view of how it conducts its business? How many middle managers are there in there anyway, and what do they do? No need to identify them by name, but we can view their memos, their emails, their patterns of work and the convoluted systems of management they have developed to justify their existences.

If we are to have a more transparent state, a word of caution however: The media and the public will need to grow up too. If a government minister does the prudent thing and asks for information on different policy approaches he or she might take and it leaks out there often follows headlines scandalising the situation. Politicians are expected to always have the right answer and never change their thinking, and this is not compatible with government in which we will be able to see quite quickly what ministers are thinking and doing.

If we can be grown up about transparency however then we will force government to grow up in how it conducts itself and become a more efficient organisation that can no longer hide its failings in the bureaucratic mire.

Aaron McKenna is Managing Director of the e-commerce company He is also writing a book on the future of Ireland to be published later this year.

You can read his previous pieces on the way forward for Ireland on here.

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