Communication, Transparency and Freedom of Information

I’m in California at the moment, at a really interesting workshop being hosted by the Computer Science department at UC Davis. I’ll blog more about the identity and privacy-related aspects of the workshop once it has ended…

In the meantime, arriving yesterday on Barack Obama’s first day in his new job gave me a chance to listen to the radio reports about what he did during the day. To a notable extent, the day’s activities were clearly choreographed to send a carefully-weighted series of messages: he went to church; he held an ‘open house’ reception at the White House for 200 friends; he ‘requested’ the suspension of trials at Guantanamo (though presumably it would be a brave military judge who decided to ignore a request like that…); he met military chiefs of staff to discuss the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, and had closed-door sessions on the economic crisis. He also announced new government transparency measures, and added to the ‘transparency’ theme by saying that White House staff on more than $100,000 would have a pay freeze while the economy is in trouble.

In parallel with this, the White House website was overhauled and used to re-inforce the President’s commitment to Communication, Transparency and Participation. Electronic media continue to be an important part of Obama’s approach, including his insistence on keeping his palm-top email device. He was quoted in one radio piece, saying that he ‘didn’t want to be getting advice just from those people who merely worked for him’, and that he wanted ‘someone in Chicago to be able to email or text him if they thought he was getting it wrong’.

That, in particular, made me smile at the memory of Gordon Brown reportedly phoning someone at home at 6am. “Luckily the man was a shift worker and was up at the time”. By some definition of “lucky”, perhaps.

I hope Obama manages to live up to his promises of transparency and communication in government, but it may not be easy. One reason his advisers didn’t want him to keep his personal email device (as well as the encrypted one he’s been issued with for work) was because of concerns that if there is work-related traffic on it, it is likely to be subject to Freedom of Information requests. So presumably easier just to keep the two sets of traffic completely separate (as Sarah Palin would no doubt confirm, in hindsight).

Meanwhile in Westminster… former cabinet minister Peter Hain was criticised for “serious and substantial failures” in not registering donations to his failed leadership campaign, and justice secretary Jack Straw was found to have been in ‘clear breach’ of the same rules, having been reminded in 2006 and 2007 that he should have registered a donation received in 2004.

It probably was not a good day for MPs to try and vote themselves exempt from having to publish the receipts of their own expense claims.