The Race to Be (Seen to Be) Open

One of the advantages of the adversarial aspect of the UK's two-party politics is that politicians have to compete with each other.

This means that when an important new meme – or fad, depending on your viewpoint – enters political discourse, there is a pell-mell rush to outdo the opposition in adopting it. This can certainly produce bad outcomes – trying to prove you are more dedicated to “fighting terrorism” and other such meaningless slogans, for example. But just occasionally, it can push political parties to move very quickly in the right direction.

A case in point is the new-found enthusiasm for openness in government. Labour has realised that it's standing with the public has, shall we say, dipped somewhat with regard to its willingness to be open about what it and its MPs are doing. It's trying to reverse that perception with various initiatives meant to promote government transparency, albeit with rather exiguous results: blacking out vast swathes of MPs' expenses when the Daily Telegraph is revealing just what they have to hide was not the smartest move.

The Conservatives seem to have cottoned on to the fact that there is an opportunity for them to out-open Labour, and it's striking how transparency has become an important theme for them in the last few weeks. That's culminated in a major speech by David Cameron that really seems to place such ideas at the heart of the Conservative platform.

There are also some very concrete promises:

This Government is running not just a control state, but a surveillance state. In 2007, Privacy International ranked Britain's privacy protections joint 43rd out of 47 countries surveyed - with the worst record in Europe, and only marginally better than Russia and China.

Faced with any problem, any crisis - given any excuse - Labour grasp for more information, pulling more and more people into the clutches of state data capture.

Contact Point is a vast database that holds the details of everyone under the age of eighteen in England, their name, address, gender, date of birth, school and health provider. And the Government doesn't want to stop with the basic information. They want the most complex, important, personal information there is.

Nearly five million people are on Labour's DNA database. The Government says it's to help fight crime. But almost a million of the people on it are completely innocent. And tens of thousands of those innocent people are children. It's a situation that would cause concern under the most oppressive regimes in the world, but it's happening right here, right now in Britain.

This in itself bad enough - our most personal information stored in labs and state data vaults. But Labour want to go even further. They want every single person in this country to walk around with an ID card. With that card over fifty pieces of personal information will have been transferred from your private control to state control. Not just your name and address and place of birth but your image, signature, fingerprints - maybe even iris scans and a facial measurement template.

For those who don't get a card there is talk of fines, enforced registration and penalties in public service provision. Scare tactics to herd more disempowered citizens into the clutches of officialdom, as people surrender more and more information about their lives, giving the state more and more power over their lives.

If we want to stop the state controlling us, we must confront this surveillance state.

So the next Conservative Government will scrap the Contact Point database of children's details.

We will scrap the ID Card scheme.

And we will remove innocent people's records from the DNA database.

I quote this in full not because I am enamoured of Mr Cameron's rhetoric, or because I believe he is saying anything new. But *if* those promises are kept, these will be significant moves; and about the best way to ensure that they are kept is to publicise them as widely as possible, so that the political embarrassment caused by reneging on them would simply be too high (so you might want to join in).

There are also important promises in terms of opening up data:

In the first year of the next Conservative Government, we will find the most useful information in twenty different areas ranging from information about the NHS to information about schools and road traffic and publish it so people can use it.

This information will be published proactively and regularly - and in a standardised format so that it can be 'mashed up' and interacted with.

What's more, because there is no complete list that can tell us exactly what data the government collects, we will create a new 'right to data' so that further datasets can be requested by the public.

By harnessing the wisdom of the crowd, we can find out what information individuals think will be important in holding the state to account.

And to avoid bureaucrats blocking these requests, we will introduce a rule that any request will be successful unless it can be proved that it would lead to overwhelming costs or demonstrable personal privacy or national security concerns.

If we are serious about helping people exert more power over the state, we need to give them the information to do it. And as part of that process, we will review the role of the Information Commissioner to make sure that it is designed to maximise political accountability in our country.

My obligatory journalistic cynicism makes me wonder just how fully the above promises will ever be implemented if the Conservatives are elected next time around, but I'm still impressed that they are even being made in the first place: this would have been unthinkable six months ago. At the very least it should induce some more panic in Labour, and even more implausiable promises about opening up on their part. And so the race will carry on at the next level.

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