Soapbox: Does Northern Ireland have an ecology of transparency?

American academic Seth Kreimer developed the phrase “ecology of transparency”. He was trying to find a way of explaining how transparency should work in a complex, interdependent and changing world.

An ecology of transparency is based on three principles that should be reinforcing and interdependent.

  1. There needs to be a foundation of civil servants with integrity and an infrastructure of internal watchdogs.
  2. There has to be opportunities to publish and share information.
  3. There has to be a set of civic actors, such as the media or campaign groups, that can commit to prolonged campaigns to disclose information.

There is emerging hope in the tenacious civic actors seeking transparency but in Northern Ireland any assessment of these three principles brings us to a sorry conclusion.

Civil servants have great difficulty acting in the public interest when they are forced to protect a political establishment. Campaign groups who act in the public interest are often perceived with suspicion as if they were acting acting against the public interest. Robust internal auditing of government activities can occur but is not transparent.

And when has a Freedom of Information request lead to a cascade of relevant information flowing? More than likely asking questions can create a lock down mentality based on cover up and the avoidance of blame. This deliberate frustration of an ecology of transparency cannot be just explained by divided loyalties, neo-gombeenery, mandatory coalition, or vested interests. The antipathy to transparency is so deeply embedded is has become the automatic default position of our political culture.

On top of this we have developed special language that self censors and crushing out debate: ‘One of us’; ‘two communities’; ‘our children are emigrating’; ‘we have to feed 9 billion people’; ‘rebalancing the economy’ and endless vacuous myths around economics. All this leads to a fear of being challenged and a discourse of banalilty.

Chomsky put it like this:

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.

whopullsthestrings_fullThree years ago Friends of the Earth ran a campaign called Who Pulls the Strings. The aim was to improve the planning system after research from QUB established a profound lack of public trust in the system.

The thinking was that if party donations made public then decisions would be likely to be more transparent and public confidence would improve. And not once did we mention corruption because it is far less prevalent in planning than people think. The idea of donor transparency is to build confidence by putting in place measures that helps remove the perception of corruption. The Committee of Standards in Public Life put it succinctly:

It is essential… that political parties obtain their funding in ways free of suspicion that donors are able to receive favours or improper influence in return.

No matter how immature democracy we cannot claim to strive for normality and refuse to normalise basic rules of transparency and democracy.

Although the campaign for party donor transparency is not yet won many people are testing transparency in other ways, simply fed up with their treatment and not taking no for an answer.

Redacted FoE letterMany angling groups who have waiting years for questions to be answered about pollution have had enough. Campaigners are outraged that you may need planning permission for a porch on your house but exploratory deep drilling with chemicals for oil and gas in a water catchment in Woodburn Forest can be approved without public examination. Rules and procedures designed to improve transparency are frequently usurped with cunning ambiguity but the mask is slipping. When reasonable letters of objection get redacted and censored on the planning website you know the redactors are in trouble.

The Diggers were a group of religious radicals who got their name because of their attempts to farm on common land. Nowadays the diggers of the digital commons are those groups and individuals who go to Freedom of Information, Environmental Information Regulations, The Aarhus Convention, Assembly Questions, use the internet to research company profiles. They often rely on a nod from an insider or talk to whistle-blowers, pursuing the quest for truth.

By their persistent search for truth in power they are helping to renew democracy through the second and third principles of an ecology of transparency. The first principle is where we need to turn our attention.

James Orr is Northern Ireland director of Friends of the Earth. His seminar on Renewing Democracy & Rebuilding Peace – The Ecology of Transparency at lunchtime today was one in a series of events around Public Accountability and Transparency organised by the NI Open Government Network. The next seminar on 11 February looks at Open Data vs Transparency and will be led by Ulster University researcher Brian Cleland.

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