Who’s responsible for Govegate?
‘Government by Gmail’ is the logical end result of the rise and rise of the weird cult of transparency.
Allegations that UK education secretary Michael Gove and his closest advisers have used private email accounts to conduct government business, supposedly to bypass freedom of information laws, have led to the possibility that MPs’ private emails will soon be ‘trawled’ by the Information Commissioner’s Office for further evidence of such behaviour. Far from being the evidence of ‘corruption’ that smug pro-transparency advocates are claiming, however, what is now being tentatively dubbed ‘Govegate’ was created by the cult of transparency: Government by Gmail is a product of their own making.
In an email shortly after taking office, Gove’s chief political adviser Dominic Cummings told selected colleagues: ‘I will not answer any further emails to my official DfE account… i will only answer things that come from gmail accounts from people who i know who they are. i suggest that you do the same in general but thats obv up to you guys – i can explain in person the reason for this…’. Is this evidence of corruption even in the early days of the new government? A sinister cabal of secretive operatives at pains to fly under the radar? Hardly. Instead the above comment is evidence that the obsession with transparency, from media campaigners and – indeed – government ministers, is stifling government operations.
When the Financial Times leaked details of the secretive email conversations, the story wasn’t really about the content of them. For example, in one email Gove responds to a judicial review on his cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme by exclaiming ‘AAAAAARGGGGGHHHH!!!!!’ and other emails seem to be asking for a frank account of progress in certain areas such as ‘where are we on phonics implementation plans?’. Rather, the scandal is that such private email conversations about government business are actually taking place at all. Even the most ‘damning’ revelation, that Cummings had successfully lobbied Gove for £500,000 for the charity the New Schools Network using private email, is hardly scandalous. Instead, the fact that Gove chose to sometimes use his wife’s account, and an account apparently using the name ‘Mrs Blurt’, seems to be evidence in itself of subterfuge.
Gove and his team have been condemned by politicians, campaigners and unions for contravening strict government rules that state that officials in the Department for Education (DfE) should ‘never use non-DfE e-mail services (such as your own personal internet email account on Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL, MobileMe, etc.) to carry out departmental business’.
Officious bureaucrat after officious bureaucrat has lined up to wag their finger at Gove and his advisers and to deliver patronising lectures, typified by that given by Jonathan Baume, general secretary of top civil servants’ union, the FDA: ‘If ministers or special advisers decide to short-circuit the official systems that allow decisions to be understood and become accountable, then it will lead to bad government and it will trip ministers up… It’s very tempting in the short-term sometimes to bypass systems, to do things off-the-record, private email systems, Blackberries or whatever. But it’s not good government because decisions that are taken that way are not properly accountable – not properly understood.’
For Baume, and many others, the issue is clear: good government is utterly transparent to the point of nakedness, baring all, obeying every process that is in place, no matter how much such transparency rules impede the normal running of government. Bad government is when officials communicate behind closed doors because anything said there is seen to be ‘unaccountable’ and potentially suspicious. Nothing should be ‘for their eyes only’ any more.
It is in the name of preventing bad government that it has been announced that government officials – including prime minister David Cameron – are likely to have their private emails ‘trawled’ by the Information Commissioner to ensure that no, in the words of an Independent leader article, ‘cloak and dagger activity’ is taking place. There are now calls for text messages to be investigated too, due to fears they may be used to ‘avoid scrutiny’. It is anticipated that this will lead to a ‘flood of Freedom of Information requests to No.10 and other departments’ from people eager to trawl through Cameron’s personal emails as US journalists trawled (fruitlessly) through Sarah Palin’s emails earlier in the year. Not because any specific underhand activity needs to be investigated, but simply because it might be taking place.
Such is the logic of the cult of transparency: all must be revealed and have the cleansing light of the public gaze cast upon it. Where there is privacy, where government officials are permitted to communicate with each other out of earshot, then there is potential for corruption to breed. The naivety of such campaigners is astounding. Such transparency hardly quashes corruption, were it to be taking place. Instead it can simply lead it to be pushed further behind ever more tightly closed doors. But, fundamentally, when ‘good government’ is seen as one that is absolutely transparent, politicians – as a result – lack the space in which to test out ideas, to speak frankly and without the qualifications necessary when making a public address and to utter half-baked or emotional outbursts (including ‘Argghhh!!!’) that simply don’t need to be heard by everyone.
Not that the government has been making such a case for the necessity of private conversations to take place. In fact, in many ways the government is being hung by its own petard. It has embraced the transparency-obsessed, Wikileaky culture that now dominates Whitehall. Shortly after being elected into office last year, David Cameron declared to all departments that the coalition government should be the most see-through government yet: ‘Greater transparency across government is at the heart of our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account.’
What next? All government buildings – or even officials themselves – being fitted with sound-recording devices to catch those previously off-the-record conversations? Perhaps they will be fitted with video cameras too, to ensure that knowing winks aren’t being given? How about heart monitors to check that politicians aren’t showing evidence of lying?
When the government doesn’t even trust itself to operate in conditions of ever-increasing transparency and not try to win the case for privacy, then unnecessary scandals such as Govegate (as Newsnight’s Michael Cockerell tentatively dubbed it) are likely to emerge. The upshot of greater transparency measures is that media and transparency campaigners may be able to trawl through millions of workaday emails on the hunt for evidence of foul play. Far from creating a more accountable government, it will produce a more ineffective and timid government instead.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.
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