As the Matt Hancock story develops, one angle which may get more attention as the initial outrage over the adultery and rule-breaking dies down a little is the broader question of whether or not people close to him or Gina Coladangelo received improper favour from the Department of Health.
One thing fuelling speculation about this is the fact that the former Health Secretary reportedly kept using his private email for official business. This morning’s Guardian reports:
“Matt Hancock’s use of private emails that bypassed disclosure rules when doing government business came under scrutiny this weekend, as exchanges emerged showing the former health secretary had personally referred an old neighbour wanting an NHS contract on to an official.”
Any credible suggestion of impropriety should be properly investigated. But it is worth recalling that there are several less nefarious reasons why a member of the Government might have continued to use their personal email address.
Two are utterly mundane. The first is personal habit – anyone who has got used to conducting work via their personal phone or email before having to switch to an official one can attest to how difficult it can be to break the habit, especially if those whom you have worked with before continue to reach you on them. Getting an email via your private account and replying via the official one can feel a laborious process.
Second, ministers are also political figures and there are restrictions on using government accounts for party business. No excuse for failing to use them for official communications, of course, but another factor making it harder to make a change in habits stick.
But the third, and most serious, is that ministers and their advisers have an understandable desire to speak frankly when developing policy and responding to crises. And in the era of Freedom of Information, this is very difficult. (Not that personal communications are exempt from the legislation, mind you.)
This is not an original observation. Charles Moore wrote almost ten years ago about how “the pursuit of transparency is leading to dishonesty” and intrigue:
“Because of the cant in which modern administrative documents are expressed, words like “openness” and “transparency” will be spattered over thousands of pages. But there will be no such openness or transparency. The big decisions will all have been made in whispers in a corridor, or abbreviated in a text message. To find out what happened, the biographer will have to rely solely on the fallible memory of elderly ex-ministers and officials.”
Nor is this observation confined to historians and reactionaries. Tony Blair, the architect of the Freedom of Information Act, is scathing about it in his autobiography:
“Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it all.”
His argument is twofold. First that for all the warm rhetoric around ‘transparency’, FoI requests are filed only extremely rarely by members of the public. They are instead almost exclusively a tool for journalists and campaigners. One may feel this is entirely legitimate whilst recognising that it is not how the legislation was originally conceived.
But he also shares Moore’s view that it has both occluded and even degraded the conduct of government :
“Without the confidentiality, people are inhibited and consideration of options is limited in a way that isn’t conductive to good decision-making. In every system that goes down this path, what happens is that people watch what they put in writing and talk without committing to paper. It is a thoroughly bad way of analysing complex issues.”
It isn’t difficult to see how this tendency might have been especially pronounced in a pandemic, when ministers were under intense pressure to find quick solutions to unanticipated problems but knew their choices would be picked over at leisure by commentators and campaigners at a later date.
Of course if it turns out that Hancock or anyone else in government was doling out public contracts improperly, that will highlight the downside of ‘opaque government’.
But even if there are arguments on both sides, we should recognise that there is very often a trade-off between efficacy and accountability. And that the media tends to ignore this when it champions any policy, be it putting cameras the House of Commons or televised leaders’ debates, that give them more material and enhances their role in our democratic system.