Paper trails are past tense: let's put it all online


Online release of most public sector data would require a seismic shift in mindsets, writes NOEL WHELAN

THE BULK of the information of late put into the public domain about the expenses of Ministers, TDs and Senators has been published as a result of Freedom of Information requests from various newspapers, particularly the Sunday Tribune.

The controversies have led again, therefore, to calls for changes and improvements in our system of freedom of information (FOI) and, in particular, for a reduction in the costs charged for fulfilling such requests.

However, instead of a reform of FOI, what is now needed is a complete cultural shift. Freedom of information is an analogue device for a digital age. A system where journalists or other interested parties retrospectively submit requests for documents previously generated is no longer appropriate or sufficient. What we now need in this country, right across the public sector, is to make a massive leap forward to eTransparency.

There is no reason why the bulk of documentation and information generated in the public sector cannot be uploaded weekly or monthly on to the internet. There have been exponential advances in the technology enabling this to be done in recent years, and even more awesome development will come. From now on there should be a presumption in favour of online publication of all public documentation and of the details of all public expenditure.

Such eTransparency would help us to understand what various State agencies do and how they use our money. The finance officers or chief executives of State agencies or hospitals, principals of schools and heads of department sections all have to prepare monthly accounts for their board meetings or supervisors. These accounts should simultaneously be published on the web. A similar approach could be taken to minutes of board meetings and any reports to board meetings about the activities of a given organisation over the previous month.

eTransparency in our political system would also help us to understand what our politicians do every day, what it costs and why they do it. The diaries of at least all the Ministers and of other office-holders should be published. The details of the Dáil attendances of each TD, their Dáil contributions, their expenses claims and staffing requirements should all appear on the Oireachtas website on a page dedicated to the purpose. It should also have a link showing what donations, if any, each politician receives each month.

eTransparency would also enable the public to better understand and appreciate the need for foreign travel by office-holders. Proposed foreign travel by Ministers should be published in advance in their online diaries with a link showing the details of what officials, advisers, media or agency personnel are travelling. The system could also remove the mystique of such trips because, in addition to showing what hotel the travel party is staying at, it could give a detailed itinerary of all the meetings and events the Minister will attend during them.

In the private sector the golden rule is that if you want to change behaviour, you first must monitor it. If the true breakdown of the way in which time and money is used in our political system and our public service generally was available online, the public would better appreciate the way in which that time and money is used, and where necessary it would be improved. There would be an army of people happy to conduct open source monitoring of public activity and money.

While some of those with the inclination to spend their time analysing the online data would be motivated by cynicism or by opposition to specific policy initiatives, they could be easily balanced by those, similarly armed with the full facts, who can better make the case for spending public money or public service time in a certain way.

If the budgets of each of our embassies had been published online monthly and we could have seen that several hundred euro was being spent sending an official and a limo to meet a Minister each time one landed at an airport in their territory, that practice would have ceased long ago. If monthly online accounts from each section of Fás had been available, the scale of the public affairs and advertising budget at Fás would have been visible.

Such a presumption in favour of online publication would require a seismic shift in the mindset of those who run our political system and our public administration, but it would also be liberating. It would take time and effort and needs to be done with regard to data protection and personal rights, but unwrapping the shroud of secrecy which cloaks so much of our public affairs would, in the long run, improve the quality not only of our public administration but also of our public debate. There would be less of the “Gotcha” effect that currently characterises media treatment of freedom of information revelations.

The use of information and communication technologies to make government information more available to the public is now best practice in public administration internationally. On the day of his inauguration, President Obama issued a regulation requiring all executive officers in his administration to take a range of new steps to rapidly disclose information about their operations and decisions online in a form that the public can readily find.

Here, eTransparency could also be the key to restoring trust in our politics and improving confidence in our public administration.