Today, over at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, Prospect is co-sponsoring Future Democracy 2009, an annual conference bringing together enthusiasts for internet politics, government folks and NGO campaigners. They still have a few tickets, so if you fancy popping by, you should.
I’ll be speaking on a panel about the impact of transparency on government and parliament, in the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses backlash. Intimidatingly, I’ll be alongside FOI campaigner Heather Brooke, fresh from her being honoured at yesterday’s Political Studies Association lunch as “campaigner of the year” — a richly deserved award given her three year battle to unveil the largely soft, but sometimes hard, corruption in the system of Mps’ payments. But I’m not entirely sure what to say.
For some years I’ve been involved in MySociety.org, and more transparency is the thread which links everything we do. There is now a soft consensus about expenses, namely that the transparency it brought was a good thing, and that the Telegraph is to be broadly commended for its work. It remains unclear, however, exactly how far that model of exposure can take us. Not every example of Telegraph-like pushing will reveal expenses-like corruption. In some situations transparency of data alone won’t be enough to achieve a change in the way institutions operate. In others, simply trying to bounce an establish bureaucracy into action (often by leaking against it) may be counterproductive: witness the long, seemingly now victorious battle to get the Ordnance to open up its mapping data.
Some of this was well summed up by Larry Lessig (normally a hero figure for the pro-transparency internet crowd), who published a much discussed essay in the New Republic last month—one of those pieces I’d have dearly loved to have in Prospect. In it he argued convincingly that radical transparency could be both harmful to institutions and counterproductive to good government. So how much transparency is too much? If I find an interesting answer between now and 2pm, I’ll post it up here later …