Saturday, 7 January 2012

Transparency - Let's move forward, not back

Having checked the Agenda for the Petitions Committee for the 10th January I noticed my petitions weren't listed, a quick phone call to the ever helpful Assembly petitions office confirmed they will be discussed, with the Minister, Mr Sargeant on the 24th January. Mr Sargeant has already given a preliminary opinion which can be seen here. In case readers have forgotten the petitions concern the filming of Council meetings and the publication of spending details over £500 - basic elements, alongside the Freedom of Information Act, of transparency.
I also noticed that the Assembly website has published the responses collected from the 'call for evidence'. Several public bodies (although not many, and not Carmarthenshire Council I note) have given their views - a few councils, the Police Authority and the Welsh Local Government Association;

Spending details;
(Both are PDF docs and some responses are duplicated in the lists)

The most detailed response comes from Wrexham Borough Council who have been looking at the possibility of webcasting meetings for over a year. There is also one positive response from a member of the public (thank you Mr Cole!) but the rest go to some length to argue against the proposals. The arguments are of course perfectly valid and I appreciate very much the trouble taken to respond at all. There are issues of cost, legalities, demand, interest etc and some positive suggestions, for example Wrexham notes that cross boundary collaboration could produce economies of scale. None are particularly keen, it has to be said, for members of the public to film, which is possibly the most cost effective method of course.
One of the most telling responses comes from Trawsfynydd Community Council (the only community council to respond, so thanks anyway) who are most definitely against the proposals and state "The existing procedure is sufficient and has been in place since 1896". Hmm.

There are, of course more positive moves which I have tried to keep up with and have mentioned over the past months, most recently from Monmouthshire , Swansea and Llanelli Town Council .

If matters of transparency are to be left to the various authorities to determine then ultimately it will depend on the personal views of those in local power, it will then depend on whether you, as a resident come under the auspices of somewhere like Carmarthenshire (or Trawsfynydd!) or somewhere like Monmouthshire. In these times of financial austerity cost is undoubtedly an issue for both proposals in the petitions but as with the costs of responding to Freedom of Information requests, ultimately it is all about democratic accountability and open decision making. Without progress (and campaigns) to greater transparency MPs could still be buying their duckhouses and examples of selective amnesia will continue to prevail in council chambers. These are just a couple of examples - I doubt if we could imagine a society these days without the Freedom of Information Act, and I believe, given the opportunity, we would feel similarly about viewing council proceedings a few years down the line. We need to move forward not back, a point made memorably (and hilariously) by bloggers Welshnewsnot back in June.

Councils, of course are also adept at conveniently pricing themselves out of something they would prefer not to countenance, have a look at this blog post from 'Anna Raccoon', inspired by a request to Hampshire Council about the cost of webcasting;
Does it really cost that much?

2012 could be crucial year for our Freedom of Information Act, here's an interesting post from blogger @tim2040 The War on Freedom of Information
Twitter is a great source for news and many varied views on the Act, remember to use the hashtag #FOI.

10th Jan; Just adding this link from the 'Help me investigate blog' via @paulbradshaw, featuring Heather Brooke (@newsbrooke) and the importance of FoI's; Tips for starting to investigate public bodies 

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