Last night, I went to a PBAge meeting. It was small but full of people who understand how to make the post-bureaucratic age work. Big Society for transparency, kind of – there were a couple of MPs, a few IT people, some campaigners for openness, and me. I’m not sure what I added to the sum of knowledge in technical terms, but I would argue that it’s important not to lose sight of the politics of this as well as the technical end.
The Coalition is undertaking plenty of government initiatives in this direction (though perhaps having any government involvement is the kiss of death…) but what struck me was that when I mentioned how important things like Wikileaks are, there was a murmur of agreement.
It’s not that I want any more harm to come to anyone who is already in harm’s way. Of course not. Nor is it that I have any axe to grind over whether or not we should be in Afghanistan (or Iraq, or any of the other places where humanitarian intervention has coincided with our geo-political aims). The reason that I believe Wikileaks is valuable to our society is that we cannot take the moral high ground and then cover up when things go wrong.
Of course mistakes are going to be made. It is horrendous that so many have been made. But pretending they don’t happen is a surefire way to ensure that we repeat them.
Transparency is the lifeblood of improvement. If you know what is happening, you see where there are problems, and you can start trying to solve them. It’s not a panacea – but it is a start.
While it is not in any way directly comparable – after all, lives are not usually lost because a government minister spends £135,000 on red sofas – there are lessons to be drawn for more mundane government activity from the Wikileaks furore.
Making information public is a vital part of what governments should do. We, after all, pay for their activities. So for example, I fully support that our aid spending should live up to our promises to the UN (more on that another day, as I suspect there are plenty who disagree) but crucially I want to know that it’s being spent wisely in ways that make a real difference.
We have a right to know what our government regards as a priority, when they get things wrong and – importantly – when they get things right as well. That is how we can decide whether we want to vote for them again.