Friday, 3 September 2010

Secrecy and accountability in local government

While some of the work of government - such as aspects of national security - must of necessity be conducted away from the public gaze, to what extent should this apply to the day-to-day business of running the country?

Over the past few weeks there's been a fair bit in the Dundee press about the City Council's impending budget cuts, but as regards where the axe will fall there's no more meat on the bones than when I posted on the subject last week.

However, a debate of some substance has been taking place, but rather than the cuts per se it involves whether the ad hoc cross-party board being set up to discuss the budget - the vacuously titled Changing for the Future board - should meet in public, or whether its debates should take place behind closed doors, as the ruling SNP administration desire.

Council leader Ken Guild makes the compelling point that in the past the opposition parties haven't even been involved in the budget deliberations. But his main concern seems to be that holding the CftF meetings in public will result in political posturing and points scoring rather than the more constructive discussions that could be held in private - the dynamic between public and private meetings is entirely different, says Mr Guild.

And in a lengthy interview with the Evening Telegraph it's interesting how often the council leader reiterates his point about the potentially detrimental influence of party politics in an open forum, and his basic point is endorsed by Professor Nicholas Terry, who is a public finance expert at Abertay University.

Naturally, opposition councillors disagree with the principle of meeting in private. Labour's Kevin Keenan says his "conscience would bother him", the Conservative's Rod Wallace disagrees with the idea of a board, preferring discussions to be held openly in the normal council committee environment, while the Lib Dem's Fraser Macpherson has branded the CftF board a "secret cabal" and said his group won't attend the meetings.

Clearly there are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate, but it seems unlikely that anyone would dispute the different dynamic between public and private meetings, which neatly demonstrates the unsatisfactory effect of party politics on good government. And, indeed, there's obviously an irony in the fact that the debate over whether to hold the meetings in public has given rise to the sort of crude administration v opposition bickering that the council leader seeks to avoid.

And while the CftF board meetings were to be held under the Chatham House Rule to avoid public disclosures of the content of the talks, Councillor Wallace points out that the rule in fact only relates to disclosure of the identity of the source of information, and not the information per se. Thus a specific rationale for secrecy outlined by Mr Guild - that talk of cuts which might not go ahead could cause unnecessary public panic - would not be relevant, because the information could be disclosed anyway, and the precise identity of the person making the suggestion would be of no real consequence in that respect.

But if a format could be devised such that no information from the CftF meetings could be disclosed - 'Chatham House plus', say - then the public would be presented with a fait accompli and would never know how the various parties and councillors concluded the budget. Presumably the normal public council meetings would merely rubber stamp what's decided by the secret board.

Of course, private meeting have been held in relation to past budgets - a point made by Mr Guild - but ultimately the decisions were taken in public meetings with a proper opposition and debate. How can voters evaluate the various parties and councillors if business is conducted in private?

It's not that long since Audit Scotland was criticising the council for a lack of scrutiny and accountability. The proposed budget process would gravely compound this problem.

But it's not difficult to imagine that if the positions were reversed then the current opposition groups would be making the same argument as Mr Guild if they held the reins in City Square, and the SNP would be arguing for a public debate. But as things stand, a defensive SNP administration clearly considers that a more public discussion would be detrimental to it, while the opposition equally clearly views private meetings as militating against being able to make political capital out of the situation.

The public v private debate may ostensibly be one of principle, but ultimately it's more about party political advantage.

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