Creating a Glass Wall Government

In his first monthly policy newsletter, Head of Policy & Research Dr Craig Dalzell highlights Common Weal policies that would make Government in Scotland more transparent, more accountable and much more resilient against corruption and takeover by corporate lobby groups.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. – The Bible, 1 Cor 13:12

Readers of The Herald may have recently spotted the impressive series by The Ferret delving into the murky world of “Who Runs Scotland”. If you haven’t, I encourage you to seek it out.
In the series, they have laid bare the extent to which Scotland has been captured, bought and paid for by powerful lobby groups who can dominate the time of Scottish Government Ministers, use simple loopholes to dodge the few transparency mechanisms we have, arrange to have Scotland’s public bodies stuffed with their own allies and are presently engaged in a massive profit extraction exercise whereby they buy up and exploit Scotland’s energy and natural resources and do so not just under the watch of but with the outright blessing of the Scottish Government.

In previous years, the Scottish Government has prided itself on announcements of “Open Government” but we’ve seen in this series how the doors are readily held open for some but firmly held shut to the vast majority. This isn’t merely a self-righteous and self-serving complaint from a small think-tank who struggles to get heard. If a democracy is to mean anything it must be that no individual holds any more power or privilege than any other. If one person can have the ear of Government and can bend it to their whim, then our votes and our voices are diminished.

One of the causes of this closing of ranks and doors and the maintenance of privilege lies in the nature of power itself. Power tends to accumulate around the folk who have it already and they fear most of all the prospect of losing it.
This process is made particularly easy in Scotland by our extremely centralised system of government which essentially pits an extremely distant UK Government in Westminster against an almost-as-distant Government in Holyrood. Our own “Local” Government isn’t nearly as many equivalent Regional Governments in most European countries and, as we detailed in our policy paper Development Councils, Scotland doesn’t have a functioning local government at all. If we had a European style system of municipality-level government with actual powers, it would be a lot harder for dodgy lobby groups to target a single Minister and “convince” them to ensure things work out in their favour.
With better local government and better means for citizens to both access their politicians and to hold them to account, it is much harder for things to slide downwards into a culture of corruption. It’s not just for Government’s sake that this is needed. As Torsten Bell said in the Guardian this week, Government corruption leads to a corrosive effect right across society. The people in power are our role models, for better or worse.

The first step to reversing the current trends of opaque government is to sort out the process of showing us who is talking to them. The Scottish Lobbying Register came about as a result of a substantial campaign by Common Weal and others in 2015 but its implementation has left much to be desired. Would it surprise you to learn that as the Register stands just now almost anything that a lobbying group like Common Weal could say to the Scottish Government could be made exempt from being registered?
How? In the first instance, the Register only covers face-to-face meetings so anything said over the phone is exempt. The same is true for internet video calls assuming you turn your camera off.
Second, if the meeting is initiated by the politicians in question, any lobbying that takes place is exempt. I discovered this one while trying to register a meeting with a Minister a few years ago and had to press them to include it anyway because we’d much rather “over-register” our lobbying than hide behind exemptions.
Finally, there is a blanket exemption for all lobbying done by organisations who employ fewer than 10 Full Time Equivalent staff. This includes Common Weal. Consider that for a moment. Our entire think tank – which explicitly lobbies government to try to get them to adopt out policies – could claim exemption from the Lobbying Register simply because we’re a small team. We don’t and we never will, but it raises the question of how many other small (but powerful) organisations lean on this exemption to hide who they’re speaking to in Government.

Next on the transparency list must be transparency from Government. The current Freedom of Information laws are woefully inadequate and have too often been used to shield Government from scrutiny either by delaying releases till the last possible moment so that they’re not as newsworthy or the Government directly interfering with the FOI process.
Common Weal took a proactive role in submitting our views to the Scottish Parliament’s review of FOI legislation through 2019 and 2020 (You can watch me give evidence to the Parliament here). In short, we called for FOI law to be extended to cover private companies providing public services (so Government couldn’t create secrets through sub-contracting and privatisation), that contracts and tenders be made public once they have been signed (“commercial confidentiality” should only apply during the bidding process, not afterwards) and that FOI itself should be reformed into a “Glass Wall” whereby all information that could normally be disclosed via FOI should simply be proactively published on a public website.
We were very pleased to learn that all of these proposals were accepted by the Committee and recommended to the Parliament though we were less pleased to learn that the Government itself has responded by pushing most the recommendations back to public consultation.

The last major issue reported by the Ferret’s series was in the way that Scottish public bodies are often governed by boards that are either packed by the industries that they are supposed to be governing or that there is a “revolving door” between civil servants and those sectors creating an unhealthy relationship of tight cliques who know precisely who to call to get their way with things.
Common Weal firmly believes that no sector (public or private) should govern itself. Every time it has been tried, it has inevitably led to this kind of clientelism and corruption. We’ve championed causes like using a permanent “House of Citizens” to oversee and govern the Scottish Parliament. The same principle could be applied to other levels of government (we suggest a similar mechanism for local government in our Development Councils paper above) but we should also consider a “Stakeholder” model of governance for other sectors like financial or environmental regulation. This kind of Participatory Governance has been shown to provide much better outcomes for everyone and thus forms part of our call for the Scottish Government to adhere to the principles of the Open Government Partnership that the Scottish Government is a member of as well as a core part of our strategy for creating a Resilient Scotland.

Common Weal has and shall remain at the front of the campaign for Open Government in Scotland. The principles have already been adopted, we now just need to see the changes being made. Governing shouldn’t be easy. It should be a process by which those in power are constantly under scrutiny and held to account for their actions. The stakes are far too high for the alternative, whereby decisions can be made in secret; targets missed but the data fudged or hidden to make it seem otherwise; or people being appointed to roles because of who they know rather than what they know. Scotland has to make a choice. Do we continue to let a few oligarchs run our country for themselves, or do we insist on making the changes that we need to make to ensure that the country is run for the collective wellbeing of all of us?

Craig Dalzell

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