The most open government in the world? It doesn't feel like itů
11 January 2013
As businesses increasingly run public services, transparency is more important than ever. But accessing data on how the taxpayer's pound is spent is getting 'harder and harder and harder', Margaret Hodge tells Matthew D'Arcy
The coalition claims to be leading the world in transparency. It says it is building the most open government the UK has ever seen. "It doesn't feel like it," says Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the formidable Commons Public Accounts Committee.
Parliamentarian of the year, Hodge is the most influential of MPs in the matter of scrutinising the hundreds of billions of pounds that Whitehall guzzles. But her authority is far from free of the frustrations of a system that she complains is still keeping information firmly concealed from the public and from parliament.
"I can think of all sorts of examples where actually we are denied data that we would find absolutely imperative in trying to track the taxpayer's pound," she says.
"Increasingly the government is using the private sector to deliver public services. All too often when you try to get behind whether there is value in the way that those contracts are delivered, you are prevented from seeing the relevant information on the grounds of commercial confidentiality."
Today's more diverse service provision needs improved accountability, she insists. One option is to extend the powers of the National Audit Office so it can examine the performance of key companies which generate a large amount of their income from the government, she suggests. "Whether it's the Capitas of this world or G4S or A4E, these are big enterprises where much of their turnover comes from the public purse," she says. "In those instances the NAO ought to go in there and find out what the hell is happening – follow the pound."
Network Rail has been "very, very difficult" to extract data from, she says. And problems are experienced elsewhere.á "The government has put more information online but there is a difference between releasing data and ensuring the data is relevant, understandable and useful.
"We still don't have appropriate data on academy schools to compare them properly with local authority maintained schools."á New public service models will not permit them to escape the scrutiny of parliament.
"As money from Department for Education goes into independent academies and free schools, DfE will not be allowed to opt out of its responsibility in ensuring that money is properly spent," she says. "It's no good trying to pass the buck to an academy trust, or to a foundation trust in the health service.
"We will hold them to account and they have got to make it absolutely logical and easy to follow the taxpayer's pound. At the moment, right across government, that is not the case."
Even the watchdogs are not spared her wrath. She complains that she has yet to see an annual report from the Efficiency and Reform Group's Major Projects Authority – a body she hopes will stop procurement "train crashes" such as those seen in defence, government IT and even in the West Coast Mainline fiasco. The reason, she understands, is that "people don't want us to know about the fragility of some projects. That's just mad, it's mad".
Performance information on the Work Programme also proved difficult to obtain. "It took forever and we are now trying to unscramble it and make sense of it," she says.
Hodge even heard from Work Programme private providers that they would be happy to share information but the Department for Work and Pensions had silenced them, they told her. "That was quite outrageous, if it is true," she says.
Transparency and consistency of data to allow comparisons becomes "ever, ever, ever more important", she says. "But it is getting harder, and harder and harder to get at it."
Getting underneath the failings of security contractor G4S at the Olympic Games was also frustrating. "It was very difficult to extract relevant information because the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is a private company, although entirely dependent on public money."
Freedom of information can be enhanced and should be extended to private firms, she says. "You can build it into the contract that you have got to have transparency so you can follow that part of the business that is being funded from the public purse. You don't need to follow the whole business."
Coalition ministers have already vetoed the release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act several times, blocking orders from the Information Commissioner and tribunals. Hodge acknowledges the need for frank and open advice in government, a justification sometimes used for refusing to release information. "But the public need proper comfort that their money is being used properly," she says.
As a Labour MP, she admits her own party tried to interpret FoI in a way that "inhibited transparency" when in government. "Civil servants hate FoI," she says. "You need to get better civil service accountability for the work they do. Far from trying to draw back on FoI we need to clarify and push forward so we don't have these excuses."
Open data has been ministers' preferred route to transparency – far more so than FoI. Ministers hoped that an "army of armchair auditors" would hold public servants' feet to the fire, when they began to release datasets. Hodge believes this army has not emerged. She is "absolutely convinced" that transparency can improve quality and value for money. Her message to ministers is "Don't talk about it, do it."
This article first appeared in Public Servant magazine