Monday, 7 June 2010

Open source national budgets: put a spot light onto the Star Chamber

The Prime Minister wants to carry out spending cuts (“deficit reduction”) in a way that “strengthens and unites the country” while the Treasury team promise to give the public a role in the process online and through public meetings. This could dramatically change the way Britain is run, so before the suggestion is smothered by cynicism, stifled by official caution or trampled on by the tough old boots of political realism, let’s encourage the Coalition to be bold and trust people to see the power struggles between the Treasury and spending departments.

So I have three suggestions:
  1. let cameras into the Star Chamber: it would make riveting viewing and transform people's understanding of politics.
  2. allow MPs to discuss the plans and budgets for each Department, through Select Committees and a substantial debate in the Commons Chamber
  3. encourage schools, colleges, local media and civil society associations of all kinds to involve people in the budget process.
Such breath-taking radicalism would show that people really are being offered an "invitation to take part in the Government of Britain."

The British Government was top of the league for financial transparency in 2008, according to the Open Budget Initiative, but may be over taken by President Obama’s commitment to “transparency, public participation, and collaboration", while the US Congress subjects Departmental budgets to more detailed scrutiny than the UK Parliament.

 The Government’s commitment to online consultation, public meetings and putting information into the public domain is welcome but not enough. We need active engagement of people in poor and marginalised communities, the users of public services as well as its staff. The Institute of Directors (IoD) and Confederation of British Industry (CBI) are actively lobbying on capital gains tax and pensions tax relief, while public sector unions are preparing to battle for their jobs, but many local communities will only notice when their taxes rise (probably through VAT), services disappear or charges increase. In many cases there may be cost-effective solutions, where local ingenuity, cooperation and haggling could create better way of doing things. Let government, business and the unions put their case to the people about the detail of spending, taxes and charges, and perhaps people can re-invent government for themselves.

Putting the Star Chamber under the spotlight of cameras will provoke public interest; providing detailed information online will enable greater understanding; scrutiny of Departmental budgets by Parliament increases opportunities to have a say; while encouraging discussion in the places where people meet could bring deeper, lasting change – and a powerful example of practical political education.

Titus Alexander

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