CameronED

Promises of transparency often come back to haunt politicians. There’s an ever present danger that anyone promising or championing openness will, at some point, be hoisted by their own petard.  David Cameron is currently finding this out over his tax affairs.

In the US candidates and office holders regularly publish their tax returns as a matter of course, as well as their medical check-ups (except, it seems, Donald Trump). You can see Hillary Clinton’s returns here and Bernie Sander’s (possibly not complete) ones here. Details of Obama’s falling income are on the White House website and you can see Reagan’s, Nixon’s, Truman’s and some of FDR’s on the great Tax History project site.

The tax and financial affairs of political leaders in the UK are a little less automatically public. This is fortunate for them, as many Prime Minister’s financial affairs have been rather questionable, less in law than in what it tells us about them, from the tangled finances of Lloyd George to Winston Churchill’s hand to mouth existence and vast spending (not to mention Tony Blair’s post office money making).

However, the tax affairs of politicians became a bigger issue in the 2012 London Mayoral Campaign, when Labour candidate Ken Livingstone was attacked for his arrangements. It cropped up again in this year’s contest when Zac Goldmsith released his returns following allegations of his non-dom status. It’s also become a little more common for senior politicians to publish and be damned-you can see Labour Chancellor John McDonnell’s returns here.

Cameron’s particular difficulties are not legal, as he has done nothing against the law, but rather presentational. First, in 2012 Cameron very clearly promised to publish his returns and was ‘said to be relaxed and happy’ about it-conveniently just when Ken Livingstone was having difficulties (though perhaps too relaxed as by 2015 they still weren’t published with no plans to do so). The media have been handed a very obvious promise to work with-and it seems now Cameron’s returns will be published very soon.

Second, he has made a very high profile bid to tackle tax evasion through Beneficial Ownership, and spoken out repeatedly against tax havens, not once but three times in this speech at the OGP summit in 2013, in his letter to all British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies in 2014 and his berating of tax havens again in 2015.  He also criticised various people involved in various types of evasion, including comedian Jimmy Carr and Take That (though he let Gary Barlow keep his OBE). More generally, in 2010, he promised ‘a transparency revolution’ and to make ‘our government one of the most open and transparent in the world’. This, of course, opens him up to charges of hypocrisy and double standards.

Finally, Cameron came close to falling into what you could call the Lyndon Johnson trap of being made to publically deny something. He spent 4-5 days appearing to evade full answers to questions about his tax, perilously close to Alastair Campbell’s seven day survivability test. It’s possible a full answer Sunday or Monday would have put it to rest, or at least made it look less worse.

So Cameron’s promises have come back to haunt him. YouGov shows his ratings have slipped to 2013 levels (and Ken has got his revenge by calling on him to resign and be sent to prison). He joins a long list of leaders from Woodrow Wilson to Tony Blair and Barack Obama who got trapped in their own transparency promises. He probably wishes he had been a little less open about being open.

The UK government is committed to leading the world in openness. As part of the push to transparency, all English local councils have been asked to publish all their spending over £500 online on a monthly basis. These ‘swift and simple changes’ could ‘revolutionise local government’ and ‘unleash an army of armchair auditors’, with citizens analysing the data and holding their local councils to account.

For the last year I’ve been researching the impact of the publication, using a combination of surveys, FOI requests and interviews. I’m asking whether making this new financial information available has had an impact: are members of the public using the new information to make local government more accountable? Do they to participate more in local politics? Do they understand more about their local council?

The evidence to date shows a limited number of people are looking at the information. A mixture of journalists, local activists and a few citizens are using the data to hold councils to account and there have been some stories in the local press and the national press. There are a few armchair auditors appearing around the country such as here and here (especially, as Eric Pickles pointed out, inBarnet) but it takes time, resources and interest –something not many of us have.

There are obstacles. The data itself isn’t as informative as it could be, and it can’t yet be compared with other councils or give a full picture of what is being spent and how (see your own local council site-mine is here). Some councils are not convinced that the public will spend their time looking through spread sheets. When you contact your council it’s generally for amenities or services-bins or planning-rather than spending.

To make it more complicated the spending data is also very political: it isn’t clear exactly what the government wants to see and they are sending out ‘mixed messages’. Some feel the information, at a time of severe cuts, is intended to make councils look like reckless spenders or wasters.

The lack of use and obstacles does not mean the reform has failed. Far from it. Councils can see the benefits of all this information for both citizens and for themselves. It is very early days and the real changes will arrive when new applications such as Openly Local orapp.gov (still in development) allow you to quickly search the data, compare spending with other councils and join it up with other ‘local’ information. In the future, local councils could have applications that combine their spending data with local information in the style ofTheyWorkForYou or the Open Data Communities hub.

This post originally appeared on the ODI website. You can see here my written and oral evidence on Open Data to the Public Administration Select Committee.

If you are interested or would like to help with my research please contact me on b.worthy@bbk.ac.uk