From my own personal perspective, which includes the views
of those I talk to, and what I read and watch on TV, our public
services are generally thought to be of too low a quality and too
high a price.
- In education we worry about class sizes, quality of teaching,
examination standards, truancy, and drugs
- In health we worry about waiting times, standards of care, and
our position in the global league tables
- In transport we worry about train safety, train prices, train
capacity & cleanliness, road congestion, road building schemes,
and toll roads
- On crime we perceive ever-increasing crime figures. Our prisons
are full. Our legal system favours the rich and takes years to
award trifling community penalties to burglars and muggers.
These problems and their solutions are the responsibility of our
politicians and the public bodies which form our local and national
But when I watch these bodies at work or hear them account for
themselves, I am often depressed.
At local level, our councillors seem too busy with petty bickering
and the pursuit of personal agendas. While services seem to get
worse our community charge continues to outpace inflation.
At national level, many of our MPs disappear from local view as
soon as they are elected (what has your MP done for you?), surfacing
only to fend off sleaze allegations and to ask for your vote. Their
leaderships are working hard on presentation while neglecting content,
and on diverting our attentions from the latest scandal or failing
At the European level our commissioners have all been disgraced,
having resigned on mass then been re-appointed. Our Euro-MPs and
what they do for us is a major mystery to me. We sit back and watch
whilst our money is poured into straightening cucumbers and bailing
out Spanish fishermen.
Every four years or so we face the depressing task of electing
our least awful candidate as our parliamentary representative. This
candidate may well have shown himself to be a lying, self-serving
hypocrite in the past. Yet he’s the best we have. Is it any
wonder voting turnout is so low?
The real rate of taxation in Britain runs at about 50 percent of
income. It's difficult to feel satisfied with what that huge financial
burden buys us, yet we’re told we must contribute
far more to build decent public services.
Politicians Can't Fix It
I think the political process is riddled with problems.
It will not provide an effective way of organising the details of
our society in the foreseeable future. Just look back a few years,
then think forwards - we're in for a lot more of the same old guff.
Even a healthy political process is limited in the extent to which
it can improve our society, and ours is far from healthy.
The Civil Service Won't Fix It Alone
We already have a vast and hugely expensive machine designed
to implement the policies of our elected decision makers. It’s
the civil service and all of the government and public bodies which
we tax payers finance.
Whilst many parts of the civil service may be doing outstanding
work, other parts of it are troubled by incompetence, complacency
and opacity - three bed-fellows I mention often. The time for which
these problems have persisted suggest that we cannot expect a management
awakening any time soon.
Who Can Fix It?
I believe that our best hope for gaining a more effective
"society machine" is for large numbers of citizens to
work together on a bottom-up strategy - improving society from within
With this strategy we can tackle all of the problems which face
us: crime, poor public services, poor service – and a great
deal more besides.
What we need to do is to "Scrutinise".
Our government is employed by us and is accountable to
us. We have the right to scrutinise them. This is a major component
of our democratic society. A government that is accountable must
allow us to watch it at work. We should be able to see the meetings
(or their minutes) and the documents. That are required to be open
That's the theory, anyway.
My practical experience in searching for data on the BSE
enquiry suggests that this theory may be very far from reality.
I have been treated very poorly and blocked in my attempts to find
out why the BSE enquiry cost us £6million. You can read more
about that here, but suffice
it to say that - based on my experience and on what I have heard
elsewhere, Open Government is a pipe dream which few citizens ever
get to claim as their right.
My working hypothesis is that government departments are reluctant
to be open because they have things to hide. Principle among those
things, I imagine, is incompetence.
If I were able to scrutinize an Excel spreadsheet which showed
a detailed breakdown of those £6 million tax payer pounds
which bought us our BSE enquiry, then we could see the intention
of Open Government made real.
If the numbers all make sense and seem reasonable, then I will
be a happy chappy. I will stand educated in the workings of this
part of government and of how £6m can be spent in running
an enquiry. It will have cost virtually nothing to provide this
data – as the government will have collected it anyway. They
will have used it to derive their totals and to manage the public
purse effectively. This will have been open government in action.
My civil right, granted.
If, on the other hand, the spreadsheet raises questions, then I
can pursue them. I’ll ask questions and report on the answers
and any problems found to you, LFB members, or to journalists or
TV program-makers. And I can make further enquiries and complaints
to civil servants higher up the chain, or to my MP.
As a consequence, poor civil servants may be demoted or fired.
Lessons may be learned, training may be commissioned and delivered,
and others in the service will see that they are accountable in
real, practical ways – to the people whose money they spend.
When the dust settles, Britain will be fixed in a small way. Multiply
this by a thousand members, pursuing a thousand enquiries, and those
small ways begin to add up.
Simply shining the public gaze onto any activity can improve it.
If, as seems to me to be the case, the civil service is a huge,
opaque fortress, practically answerable to nobody, then they will
conduct their business in a certain way. I am guessing that involves:
1. A culture of entitlement and self-justification
2. A bias towards maintaining the status quo
3. Institutional inefficiency
[Ever seen the series “Yes, Minister”? Margaret Thatcher
has said that that series was very close to the truth.]
If, on the other hand, they know that we have a right to scrutinise
their work, and that we can and do exercise that right in practical
ways, they will have an entirely different and far healthier mind
set and organisation, involving:
1. A culture of service for the public
2. A willingness to introspect and change
3. Constantly improving efficiency
Even if you don’t read any documents, simply exercising the
right to ask for them could have a magical and low-cost effect on
the running of our government.
What is true for central government is also true for local government
- education authorities, health authorities, police authorities,
and any other public body.
So – I am suggesting that Let’s
Fix Britain members, up and down our country, engage with
a part of government that interests them, and pursues that
interest with the department concerned.
They should “poke around”. Ask to see reports,
and tenaciously push through to a point where they understand
the issues and events, and they're happy that everything happened
as it should have.
Do this reasonably, patiently and courteously, but don’t
give in, and don’t stop once you get a content-free glossy.
Read the glossy and try to understand it, by all means - but I guarantee
it will raise far more questions than it answers for anyone with
an alert mind. This will be your starting point - not the end-point.
We can all share our findings at the Let’s Fix Britain web
site– in the forums and in articles you write. Not just findings
on the issue, but lessons about the process.
Who Can You Scrutinise?
Broadly - any public body - which means all of the following, and
some more besides:
- Any government department
- The House of Commons & the Lords
- Assemblies of Northern Ireland and Wales
- The armed forces (but not special forces of GCH)
- Local authorities - parish, district, borough and county councils
- Fire, waste, health, police and port authorities
- NHS practitioners (general medical, dental, ophthalmic, pharmaceutical)
- Governing bodies of maintained schools
- Schools, colleges & universities funded under the Further
and Higher Education Act 1992
- Numerous advisory committees
- Arts councils
- Many Museums
- The Civil Aviation Authority
How Can You Scrutinize?
The process is straightforward but you need to be a bit of a self-starter:
- Pick a topic which interests you, or where you think you smell
Perhaps you're not happy with some aspect of the running of your
daughter's school, or the local paid-parking scheme.
My first outing was for the BSE enquiry. I couldn't see how we
could spend £6 million on an enquiry into the crises.
- Try to write down exactly what it is you want to know. In my
case I wanted "The complete financial breakdown of the costs
of the enquiry into the BSE crisis".
- Find the appropriate government body. I knew it was DEFRA, and
I found them on the web. I worked through email and phone.
- ALWAYS start out with the assumption that the
people you contact are nice people, with personal integrity, working
hard to do a great job in what may be difficult circumstances.
I have personally dealt with many such people at the Bedford councils,
and you'll doubtless find your share too.
- Keep all your correspondence, make dated notes about the contents
of phone calls. Make sure you always know who you are speaking
to, and what position they occupy. Feel free to open a new thread
in the "Battle
Diaries" forum, and document your progress there.
- Do not be diverted by pleasant non-compliance. I was treated
very pleasantly and courteously and given a high-level summary.
But as I pushed for the detail, I met with less pleasantness and
- Never be tempted to become rude or to display impatience. If
you lose the moral high ground, you're sunk. By all means be direct:
"you have not answered my questions" or "please
give me the name & contact information for the person you
report to" - but don't be rude.
- If progress is too slow with the person you are dealing with,
escalate to their boss. Don't become daunted - whatever their
- If you need to, refer to the Freedom
of Information Act 2000, I will be publishing a guide to this
sorry piece of legal mumbo-jumbo shortly.
- Sometimes you'll be ignored, and in the absence of incoming
email, you may forget that you're on a mission at all. So put
a reminder in your diary to send a prod if you have not received
a reply after a reasonable time.
- Please keep LFB up-to-date - firstly, because it's interesting
and inspirational for other members, but also in case other members
can offer you advice on your campaign. As mentioned earlier, you
can document your progress as you go in a new thread in the "Battle
- If you reach a brick wall, please contact us. - we might be able to help you.
As I write this I can imagine a few worries which some of you may
have - or which may surface as accusations against members doing
public scrutiny. Here are my answers, which I hope you'll agree
with and use when appropriate:
- Aren't you just wasting everyone's time and Public money?
Well - you are certainly occupying a public servant's time, and
they'll be earning a salary financed through public funds. So
you should use their time efficiently by preparing your correspondences
well. If you're asking frivolous questions you are
wasting time & money. But if you are a tax-paying citizen
with a genuine interest, or a suspicion you want to pursue, you
have a right to do so. I might even go as far as saying you have
an obligation to do so.
- What Good will all this Do?
There are several real benefits:
- You will be given information which will help you to understand
issues of legitimate public interest.
- That information may allow you to further an investigation
which may expose problems which ought to be made public. That
exposure may go on to cause corrective actions to be taken
within the public body, and in other bodies who may be observing
- You will be showing public bodies that they can and will
be called to account for their actions in the service of the
public. This will have beneficial effects.
- Don't you Have Anything Better to Do?
I have plenty of other things to do, but scrutinising important
aspects of government in action is what I have carefully chosen
to invest some of my precious time in doing.
So there it is. Public Bodies conduct the work of running
our society on our behalf and at our expense. If we want to understand
more, we have a right to be given the relevant information.
So the next time you wonder why the rates just went up 17%, or
you see a minister glossing over another disaster, or you don't
like what they're doing at your daughter's school or you wonder
why you haven't seen a policeman on foot in three years, exercise
your right to scrutinize!