Sadiq Khan said ‘I am determined to lead the most transparent, engaged and accessible administration London has ever seen’ in the opening words of his speech at swearing in. I’ve been working on transparency for ten years now, much of it London focused – how could London’s new mayor go about it? Here’s some quick practical suggestions:
- Declaration to staff and Assembly – The Mayor should set out a succinct and unarguable statement to all staff that he wants them to be transparent. And to the Assembly something along the lines of Obama’s day one transparency memorandum.
- Hold an open internal meeting inviting staff who work on transparency issues, tell them how much you value their work and set out your message in person. Do this in the first week.
- Ask the public how the Mayors organs can be more transparent – what is useful to the public, journalists, politicians. What do they want to know?
- Clean out the Augean Stables – set a three month target for clearing the entire FOI backlog. Based on my experience, TfL seems to have huge backlogs of FOI cases awaiting review. On one of mine I’m being told that the public cannot benefit from knowing what the public benefit of a project is. I have been waiting months now for the police to respond to a subject access request (for which I have had to pay them). Publish a list of the backlog.
- External advice – get in a transparency advisor with experience of working with bureaucracies (not a blow hard from a lobby group nor a SPAD) and create a transparency board to advise you and keep you on track. Get them to perform a quick transparency audit with recommendations for action and then implement it.
- Shift the needle – from transparency being a headache to something that allows London to get a better deal and do better business. In particular through transparency about service contracts which should make pricing more accurate when they are re-let i.e when bidding for a new contract you can see what was paid for (or revenue received from) the current one. Commercial confidentiality of pricing and trade secrets is vastly over played by bureaucrats who want a quiet life with their suppliers – this locks in asymmetry of information that is the price gouger’s best friend – Stiglitz and Weiss et al won a Nobel prize recently for work on asymmetry and economic decision making. This goes beyond your manifesto commitment to bringing contractors into FOI – if you just do that they will continue to duck and dive within the FOI regime.
- Assess whether opacity was a result of the previous Mayors’ (both Ken and Boris) direction or a bureaucratic problem. Use your leadership and your advisors to change a bureaucratic problem. I am sure your style at question time won’t be as disparaging as Boris was, that sets an important tone to staff providing answers.
- Write transparency into the job descriptions of all senior staff – set them targets on processing transparency requests and reflect that in their pay.
- Urban transparency summit – hold a quick cheap and dirty conference inviting other cities from around the world to set out how they tackle transparency – from open data to FOI. There’s a lot to learn.
- Set up a modern public online FOI interface for your administration like What Do they Know, or just commit to putting everything through What Do They Know – so that transparency is genuinely transparent and trackable. Similarly, get in MySociety to make the online proceedings of the Assembly as good as They Work For You.
- Encourage new media outlets to hold you to account – recent work by Kings College shows how poorly served Londoners are for a detailed local media about their patch – support the small hyperlocal blogs across London with advertising and some love.
- Open Data, trendy though it may be is a tiny subset of the above – if you can do all of that then you can reduce resources needed for the data office in your manifesto.
- Long term consistency – all new administrations like transparency and then fade as time goes on, even including Obama. Combat this political entropy effect with future checkpoints – make a speech every year on transparency or commit to an annual debate in the Assembly.
Edit history – I bashed out the original post in about 20 minutes and it was replete with spelling errors and typos – gave it a light edit for sense a few hours after publication.
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