The possibility of opening up the business of government to the public via the Internet has long been understood. But, just like electoral reform, it is a cause that suits a party better when they are in opposition than when they reach power, rather hampering its chances of becoming reality.
However, outrage at the MP’s expenses scandal has renewed the public’s appetite for reform in Westminster, and all parties are now promising to clean up parliament. In all cases, the Internet plays an important role in these reforms.
The Conservatives have been especially vocal in calling for all MPs expenses to be published online, and have already done so with the expenses of the Shadow Cabinet.
When pressed on the subject by Tory leader David Cameron in the Commons last month, Prime Minister Gordon Brown expressed some support for the idea: "I think it is important that there is a transparent system, that when a claim is reported to the fees office, the fees office can then itself put that up on the Internet,” he said. “I hope that will be introduced as soon as possible.”
There was, however, no explicit mention of publishing expenses online as Brown announced a new ‘code of conduct’ for MPs (the law, apparently, is not enough) on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday 31st May 2009.
But Brown did imply that the current enthusiasm for reform might lead to greater openness in all facets of government, not just MPs expenses.
“In a free society, open information is the key to a proper democracy,” he said. “There will be no more of the gentleman’s club, the closed society; that was 19th Century politics.”
Of course with an election looming, pinches of salt must be taken. And it is always easier to invoke grand principals such as openness and transparency than it is to design and implement the systems that could expose government information to the public in a usable and meaningful way.
But across the Atlantic, there are some interesting developments that could provide a model for improving public sector transparency. President Obama’s adminstration appears to be genuinely interested in the possibilities for greater co-operation, collaboration and information sharing between government and citizenry enabled by the latest web technology.
For example, US government Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra last month launched a website by the name of data.gov, a repository of government data that aims “to increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.”
Here in the UK, there was every chance that these developments would have been ignored, dismissed as too expensive or faddish. But the present scandal means that there is now a genuine interest in opening up government information, and the US government’s actions in this field will be watched with interest in Westminster. Perhaps we should thank the MPs for that.