Helping Them €“ and You - Investigate

As you may have heard, there's a bit of a brouhaha in UK politics at the moment – something to do with MPs' expenses, I gather. What you may not know is that the original cause of this upheaval is not, as many think, The Daily Telegraph – even though that has been the instrument of all the fuss.

The person who started it all, through her dogged quest to obtain some information about MPs' expenses, is one Heather Brooke, who has now been officially nominated (by me) as the patron saint of UK transparency. Here's her description of how it all started:

When I first telephoned the House of Commons about expenses, back in 2004, I was working on a book called Your Right to Know, a citizen's guide to using the Freedom of Information Act (just as the law was coming into force). It was my attempt to get back into serious reporting after taking a break to study literature and write for kids' magazines.

When I made that call, I didn't intend to bring a plague on all politicians' houses. But I was interested in our opaque parliamentary expenses system, having learned about the highly transparent system of political expenses in Washington state; when I was there in 1992 as a student reporter I'd been able to access my local politicians' receipts in a matter of days.

Little did I realise that this simple request to the Commons would end up becoming a five-year investigation, and take me to the high court and back.

I encourage you to read the rest of the piece, since it's an extraordinary tale about an extraordinary person, who looks likely to change British politics more than anyone has for decades. But what I want to concentrate on here is not so much that past, however glorious it may be, but on what Ms Brooke is doing now, since I think it could have some very interesting implications for even wider transparency, and for businesses.

It's called “Help me investigate”, and it aims to help you “Collaborate with other people to investigate things you all care about”. The process is simple:

1.Start an investigation

2.Invite other people to help you investigate it

3.Collaborate and share answers

Readers of this blog don't need to be reminded just how powerful collaboration can be, and how 1+1 can equal 483 given the right environment.

This means that if the “Help me investigate” idea takes off - and it's currently still in beta - companies are likely to fall under far more scrutiny by the artists formerly known as customers.

More positively, there is no reason why companies or their staff should not instigate such investigations into areas that are currently mysterious or opaque (provided, of course, they state their affiliations). The great thing about transparency is that it works both ways; and as someone once said, “those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear....”

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