Opinion: Liberal Democrat, not Yes Minister, values must prevail on Risk Register

Back in 2010 we campaigned on a vision of open government and “new politics”. The debacle over the NHS Strategic Risk Register shows how far we have strayed from this policy objective and also how hit and miss the Coalition’s political management has become.

The Risk Register issue is just one in a very long line of political blunders in the life of the Health and Social Care Bill. This time the Government is still trying to oppose public opinion, the Information Commissioner and now a Labour motion in the Commons, causing far more political upheaval than necessary. Whatever the actual content of the issue, the Government is now very much on the wrong side of the issue and has totally lost the initiative.

I am being slightly unfair though; the Government has proved it is very much in favour of openness for other parts of the public sector. Paul Burstow, for example, has just released a mass of new data showing just how poor many local NHS organisations are at caring for diabetics. His explicit aim is to encourage the NHS locally improve its policies through the threat of public criticism.

This is the same public criticism – and encouragement – central government feels it should be immune from. The Department of Health, and implicitly our own party in government, is arguing that because people-the public and the media-won’t understand what a strategic risk register contains (especially the worst case scenarios) it would generate distorted and unfair negative coverage. If this holds true, this is a very good argument for not revealing any information about government at all; the press often needs absolutely no excuse for resorting to gross misinterpretation and hyperbole when it comes to something the state is doing.

I’m also not sure if the Department of Health has noticed, but there is absolutely no shortage of negative coverage of the reforms and it would be reasonable to suggest that releasing the register couldn’t possibly cause any more damage. Arguably the attempt to suppress the register is causing far more negative coverage than releasing it ever could.

The Government is employing a further argument that if the material used for policy formation from risk analysis to legal advice is made public, it will seriously impede this very process and inhibit civil servants from even identifying or raising problems in the first place. This is not the view we as a party should be taking.

On the one hand we should be pursuing an aggressively transparent approach to policy formation; this is fundamental to overcoming vested interests, be they of those who bankroll political parties or the institutional inertia of the civil service. At the moment we are seemingly supporting an approach that doesn’t trust the public to understand what government does.

On the other hand we must reject the idea that public scrutiny will prevent public servants from discussing the risks of various policy options. If it did, this represents an ethos in the civil service verging on negligence and that is specifically something we as a party should be in politics to change.

Hopefully someone will see sense and release the Risk Register before a divisive Commons vote but in any case this should provide a timely opportunity to review what we want from open government and make sure we end up with a Liberal Democrat rather than a Yes Minister outcome.

* Tom Smith is Director of Liberal Insight, the new liberal think tank.

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6 Comments

  • Richard Dean 22nd Feb '12 - 12:33pm

    It would be helpful to see whether the government has really identified all the risks, yes, and what risk management plans they have to monitor the situation to catch problems early. That would give us an idea of competence or otherwise.

    Some of the risks and plans might be very revealing indeed, such as if they identify stubborn refusal to change as a risk and have a nasty plan to handle it. Some of the omissions might also be revealing, such as if they omit to identfy risks lof profiteering, or loss of control in some areas. Identified or omitted political risks might be very interesting!

    But for many risls, such as the risk that people will be genuinely confused and that the service will collapse as a result, we probably don’t need to rely on government and civil servants to tell us what they are. I wonder if whatever gets published in the end might be somewhat sanitized anyway.

  • Richard Dean – you’re in danger of operating under quantum principles here; by observing something you change its state. For example – you may not have any industrial relations issues, but if you highlight it as a potential risk and it is misinterpreted you may end up causing the thing you you’re trying to avoid.

    Another good example is over-reliance on one supplier – clearly a risk were that supplier to go bust or suffer production issues. If you were to publish that it would enable that supplier to screw you.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Feb '12 - 5:34pm

    Tabman,

    I disagree, but don;t worry, I do it on principle. I always find that arguments are more interesting if there is fierce debate.

    It’s true that stirring the pot can cause industrial relations issues, but once stirred and resolves, those issues no longer need trouble anyone ever again. The inconvenience of having to address issues in the short term strengthens in two ways, by providing opportunities for things that weren’t thought about to be tought about, and by lancing boils.

    Suppliers will know those things anyway. Far better to publish, thereby allowing pressure to develop to find more than one supplier, thereby resolving the dependency issue.

    So in both examples, openness is better than secrecy!

  • Jayne Mansfield 22nd Feb '12 - 8:40pm

    Let us hope that the information on the risk register finds its way onto wikileaks then we will know what the politicians in government don’t want us to know. Do the government think that we the electorate are too immature to cope with the information?

    As a consequence of tonight’s vote, I shall be taking the first direct action of my life when I shall travel to London to join the rally on 7th March ( the rail system willing).

    Given the opportunity, I will give a wave to camera for you Richard Dean.

  • Richard Dean – I am actually a card-carrying member of the GBCP; I just pretend to be an Orange Booker for the fun of the joust 😉

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