20th June 2021
Every so often there will be some politician – usually Michael Gove but sometimes someone else – who will urge that there be ‘public sector reform’.
This reform should be ‘radical’ or ‘fundamental’.
Heads will nod, and hands may even clap.
Worthy pdfs will be clicked on earnestly, only for the tabs to be then left unread.
And then nothing really happens until the next time some politician – usually Michael Gove but perhaps someone else – will urge that there be ‘public sector reform’.
What is often missing in many of these heady, fine-sounding proposals is the one thing that would genuinely be radical or fundamental.
This would be to force public sector bodies to disclose information against their will.
For as long as public bodies – politicians and officials – can pick and choose what information can be disclosed publicly, there can never be any meaningful reform of the public sector.
There needs to be a tension – a check and a balance – in respect of any public body’s estimation of itself and its performance.
Unfortunately – as typified by the cabinet office under Michael Gove – there is a general public sector disdain for transparency and freedom of information.
There always seems to be some reason to keep public sector information secret – from ‘national security’ to ‘commercial confidentiality’.
Indeed, the most dismal and insincere official documents in existence are freedom of information non-disclosure decision letters.
Everyone involved knows that the content of such letters is faithless guff – but nobody with any power seems to care.
When there is no duty of disclosure and no duty of candour there can be no holding of the public sector to account.
And if there is no way of holding the public sector to account then any ‘public sector reform’ will not succeed against the private interests of the officials and politicians involved – nor against the interests of external suppliers.
So, to mimic David Hume, there is something to ask of any public sector reform, whether it is proposed by Michael Gove or somebody else:
Will the proposed public sector reform result in the public sector disclosing information that it otherwise would be unwilling to disclose?
Will the proposed public sector reform mean that officials and politicians – and relevant third parties – being candid when they otherwise would not be?
Then commit the proposed public sector reform to the flames, for it will contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
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