The cost of transparency and accountability

The MP Expenses issue is a very interesting story. There are lots of reasons why it is spreading so aggressively…

  • in hard times people look for someone to blame for what’s wrong in the world
  • people are learning to expect more transparency from their government
  • the availability of the data compells the curious to dive into all the detail and look for trends and interesting nuggets
  • activities are surfacing that people want to understand
  • the prospect of uncovering abuses that result in the downfall of a politician is too exciting for people who crave gossip to resist
  • …and on and on

The Internet is optimized for this kind of story.

A big pile of personal data was posted publicly in a usable format. (This data has been available via as PDFs for years, but once it’s in a convenient spreadsheet format it suddenly becomes meaningful and very shareable.) People then started finding interesting trends with very little effort. And then we got a very public flame war.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the recent triggers around this issue:

Now, despite the fact that it’s incredibly important for this kind of thing to be possible, I think the scale of the conversation about it is very much a distraction. Stephen Fry captured this sentiment in a quip for a BBC journalist:

“Let’s not confuse what politicians get really wrong with things like wars with the rather tedious obsessions about whether or not they charged for wisteria. It’s not that important. It really isn’t. It isn’t what we’re fighting for. It’s a journalistic made up frenzy.” (Only, I disagree that’s a journalistic made up frenzy. The MPs, the public and the mainstream media organizations are all contributing to the noise together.)

If twitter activity can be considered an insight into what MP’s are spending their valuable time thinking about, then this issue is definitely becoming too big. This Tweetminster chart shows that ‘expenses’ are much more relevant today than ‘banks’ amongst MP’s who use twitter, for example:

Again, I’m happy that we live in a world where our politicians who we pay to represent us are accountable in a very open and public way and that we have the ability to ask them hard questions directly from wherever we sit in the social hierarchy.

Interestingly, this case also provides a view into the cost of openness.