Open government spells end for Minister for Digital Engagement

On Monday, I wrote that one good thing to come out of the MP’s expenses scandal that is still unfolding in Westminster could be a renewed impetus for open and transparent government, as made possible by the Internet.

But today it emerged that one of the government’s most vocal supporters of web 2.0 technology in politics and the public sector has stepped down from his ministerial role after embarrassing details of his own expenses were revealed.

As Minister for Digital Engagement, Tom Watson was both an advocate and an early adopter (in Westminster circles) of blogging and Twitter. And more broadly, he was a proponent of open government, of giving the people greater access to information about what the government is doing on their behalf.

For example, in reaction to the Guardian newspaper’s Open Platform, which grants software developers access to all of its data, Watson wrote: “Governments should be doing this. Governments will be doing it. The question is how long will it take us to catch up.”

Last month it was revealed by the Daily Telegraph newspaper that Watson, along with a fellow MP, had used more than £100,000 worth of parliamentary expenses (i.e. taxpayer’s money) to invest in a flat they owned together. The newspaper criticised the fact that the pair stand to benefit personally from these investments when they sold the flat.

That a man who was ostensibly a proponent of open government has fallen foul of the expenses scandal seems contradictory at first. But looking at Watson’s voting record in parliament, it becomes less surprising.

The MP for West Bromwich East consistently voted to keep the MP’s expenses secret. And according to the website, which tracks MP’s votes and speeches in parliament – not an entirely impartial source as the organisation behind the site, mySociety, campaigns for open government – Tom Watson has since 2001 voted ‘strongly against a transparent Parliament’.

Maybe Watson never really understood how web 2.0 will change government after all. In which case, his departure from the role of Minister for Digital Engagement is well deserved. The only problem; is there anyone in Westminster who does?

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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