Political Reform Starts with Disclosure about Our Economy

Nat O'Connor03/03/2011

Nat O'Connor: The Irish Examiner reports the not unexpected news that "Negotiators trying to hammer out a Fine Gael/Labour programme for government have been given a sharp reality check by the state’s top financial experts." This is not surprising, but if the commitment to significant political reform by both parties is met, it does not need to happen again.

Cynics have been saying throughout the election that promises made in manifestos will dissolve once Fine Gael and Labour spokespersons get full access to the facts and figures from the Department of Finance, NTMA, Central Bank, etc.

My less cynical interpretation is that, yes, we know that Ireland is one of the most secretive democracies (which I argue here for example, pages 12-13). So yes, we knew that manifestos were written on the basis of imperfect information. The question for the future is whether Fine Gael and Labour are committed to changing this dynamic.

In the next few days, they are naturally going to be fully focused on absorbing whatever new (awful) information they have received to see how this affects their economic plans and what kind of agreement they can still make with one another.

However, the commitment to political reform starts on Day One. Never mind the Constitution, the ultimate fate of the Senate, Dáil standing orders or the plans to restore freedom of information legislation. As important as all of these things are, what matters most is for our political leaders to think differently, and to act differently, from the outset.

In terms of openness and transparency, this means that whatever information they have received from the state's "top financial experts" should be further disclosed.

Fine Gael and Labour need to ask themselves the question: should they have known all of this new information before the election? If so, they need to disclose this information to all TDs immediately. If not, democracy is fundamentally weaker in this country than others - because if party manifestos in future are to continue to be based on incomplete or misleading data, then voters will be kept in the dark and asked to choose blindly between policy promises that are inevitably going to be compromised by economic reality. Disclosure, on the other hand, would mean that voters would have a genuine choice between different policy responses to that economic reality.

Fine Gael and Labour should also ask themselves: how many different sources of independent economic analysis have had access to complete information about our economic situation? Is it healthy or useful that academics and researchers are working with incomplete information? If it is not useful - and it is hard to see how it could be - then there should be disclosure, now.

But let's pause and consider the forces acting against Fine Gael and Labour as they attempt to introduce real and lasting political reform in the area of open government and transparent decision-making.

'Culture' can be defined as doing the same kind of thing in the same kind of way over time. Families, counties and nations have different cultures, precisely because they have consistent patterns of behaviour that distinguish them from one another. Our political and administrative culture is no different: there are plenty of patterns of behaviour that have not changed in decades, and one of the strongest reflexes in Irish politics is secrecy.

Our culture of secrecy is reinforced by the simple, but effective, argument of 'why do things differently?' Secrecy is power. If the new Government starts giving more - and better quality - information to Opposition TDs, researchers and journalists, inevitably this information will be used to challenge, probe and scrutinise the detail of Government decisions and the reasons for those decisions. And who'd want that in a democracy? Particularly, in a democracy that is financially ruined in no small part because a small cabal of people who thought they knew best believed they could bluff their way through economic disaster by hiding as many unpleasent facts as possible.

There are other forces promoting secrecy. Fine Gael and Labour will need to build a reasonably robust working relationship, if they are to form a coalition. Any commitment to working together in coalition means that they will need to develop some level of trust with one another. Otherwise they won't share information with each other, and there will be confusion and contradictory statements and policy coming out of Government all the time. Yet, trusting one another may mean not revealing 'secrets' in public. Coalitions are naturally motivated to be more secretive than single party Government, as 'leaks' are seized upon as evidence of treachery by one side or the other, if the leak happens to reveal information that favours one party's position over another's.

Another barrier to openness is fear. As well as the fairly well known effects of releasing information (in terms of what Opposition TDs and other will do with it), there is also a fear of the unknown. What if 'the markets' had access to all this information? What would it do for Ireland's international business reputation?

The evidence from other countries suggests that it would be welcome. People working in finance and business like to have access to information they can rely on, even if it is unpleasent. A major part of the problem with our banks has been the policy of dredging the lake rather than draining it. Stakeholders need to see the bottom, before they can plan any further business with our banks.

Ireland's old-fashioned adherence to secrecy would be comical - like Yes, Minister - if it were not so painfully out of step with how modern, advanced industrial economies go about the business of generating economic policy, through open, rational debate about the facts and how different economic models would react to those facts.

Disclosure does not have to be 'all or nothing'. I am willing to bet that most of the information currently being received by Fine Gael and Labour's teams could be fully, publicly disclosed. However, if there are details that are genuinely sensitive, there are many potential mechanisms to deal with this.

Disclosure to all TDs would be a start. If these men and women are going to be voting in the Dáil on the likely coalition's economic policies and future budgets, then they should be fully informed, so that they can scrutinise these policies. I am willing to bet that many Fianna Fáil TDs in the last Government were not given anything like full access to economic data.

Full disclosure of all sensitive details, on condition of secrecy, to economic-related parliamentary committees occurs in other countries. That way, the Oireachtas could regain some relevance to the Irish people because debate could be informed by complete factual information. Other countries ensure more quality debate by organising 'lock ins' for spokepersons, researchers and journalists hours before publicly releasing information, like budgets. This ensures realistic analysis , not 'off the cuff' comment.

In addition, disclosure to academics and independent reseachers would ensure that the Government and Dáil would have access to a range of analysis from different perspectives on the economic challenges facing us. Ironically, the Government may have the data, but it requires experts to provide the analysis. There is no guarantee that the future Government would pay attention to this advice any more than internal advice, but they would at least be unable to claim ignorance; unlike the outragous claim to RTÉ by ex-Taoiseach Ahern that "I would have loved if somebody somewhere had told me what was going on in the banks in this country but nobody ever did."

Of course, the counter-argument from the masters of secrecy would be that once you start disclosing information outside of the inner circle, it will leak further and further. Before you know it, everyone will know the real story about the Irish economic situation! And who'd want that?

Posted in: Democratic accountability

Tagged with: transparency

Dr Nat O'Connor     @natpolicy

Nat O'Connor

Nat O’Connor is a member of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences (IRiSS) and a Lecturer of Public Policy and Public Management in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at Ulster University.

Previously Director of TASC, Nat also led the research team in Dublin’s Homeless Agency.

Nat holds a PhD in Political Science from Trinity College Dublin (2008) and an MA in Political Science and Social Policy form the University of Dundee (1998). Nat’s primary research interest is in how research-informed public policy can achieve social justice and human wellbeing. Nat’s work has focused on economic inequality, housing and homelessness, democratic accountability and public policy analysis. His PhD focused on public access to information as part of democratic policy making.



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