Spin substituted for substance

Daran Hill writes an open letter to Jane Hutt AM about transparency within Welsh Government.

An open letter to Jane Hutt, Minister with responsibility for open government

Dear Jane

On Wednesday evening you appeared on the Wales Report on BBC One Wales offering a response to criticisms levelled by myself and Prof Laura McAllister regarding the nature of transparency and openness in the Assembly and Welsh Government.

I considered writing this letter privately to you as a Welsh Minister – the first time I have ever been prompted to do so in nearly seventeen years of engaging with Welsh Government – but thought more appropriate to make my continued disquiet known publicly.

You began your interview by stressing the commitment of the Welsh Government to both of these things. I know you are a politician of experience and integrity and do not doubt your sincerity, but I remain concerned that the defence you presented does not adequately address the points raised.

As the former National Organiser of Yes for Wales in 1997 and Campaign Director of the Yes campaign in 2011 my voice may carry disproportionate weight, but my passion and commitment to a mature, open and transparent politics in Wales is as important to me now as when I campaigned hard to ensure the Assembly was created and its powers and responsibilities were extended.

The concerns which were voiced on the programme were clear and my concerns are not isolated. My previous article for IWA on this theme had over 500 tweets, retweets and likes on Twitter. They came from across the party spectrum and from many people, like myself, without any sort of party political allegiance. They included many policy and public affairs officers who work in Cardiff and beyond.

Let me look at one of those concerns in detail: the issue of discontinuing the publication of Ministerial Decision Reports on the Welsh Government website. You claimed that the justification for this was to reduce bureaucracy and that alternative methods would be used to “get the message” out. Both of these responses are worrying. Decision Reports were never about “getting the message out”, they were about reporting clearly which decisions had been made, why they had been made, and what the cost was. Replacing them with a cherry-picked process of announcing only certain decisions, be that by press release or social media, is an extremely retrograde step. It looks like spin is being substituted for substance.

Further, you know that every government process involves a degree of bureaucracy. There will of course by a significant multiplication of that bureaucracy if many of us in the policy community start using the Freedom of Information request system to obtain information that was previously easily accessible and freely available. There would also be a significant cost to Welsh Government in responding, which I am sure is the last thing you as Finance Minister would want.

You cited the low readership figures on Ministerial Decision Reports, accounting for just 0.5% of the traffic to the Welsh Government website. That may be true, but since when is page visits the appropriate bar for open disclosure? What other materials might in future be hidden because not enough people read them?

Indeed, you mentioned the Carwyn Connects tours as a substitute for openly publishing the Decision Reports. I don’t condemn that engagement exercise, but I am genuinely struggling to see how town hall meetings will replace online publications. Indeed, if the 0.5% criteria is now being used by Welsh Government as a yardstick does that meeting programme get dropped if local attendances fall below this level?

You also pointed to the publication of Cabinet minutes as a key aspect of openness. Thankfully this means they probably won’t be jettisoned too, but in all honesty they aren’t any sort of substitute. Only big decisions go to Cabinet, as you know, so anything also will not be reported unless you choose to do so. I invite you and others to look at Cabinet minutes which, by their very nature are not particularly detailed and draw conclusions on whether the level of information provided is truly adequate. My strong opinion is that they are just part of a picture and that standing alone they provide very little meat to the bone on the matter of governance.

Finally, the programme also contained my criticisms of removing Jenny Rathbone AM from the Programme Monitoring Committee and also the previous practice taken by Labour, Plaid Cymru and Conservative groups of sacking Committee chairs for stepping out of line on party matters unrelated to such roles. I do not expect you to respond for other parties, but I would ask that you and the Welsh Labour group think long and hard about the perception of these moves. They certainly have done nothing to increase trust in Welsh Government.



Daran Hill is the MD of Positif.

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