After 13 years of broken promises full transparency must finally come to City Hall

Whenever over the past few years I’ve grumbled about the difficulty of getting hold of some piece of information or other, there’s come an immediate and predictable rant from his critics that this is yet more evidence of poor behaviour by Boris and his team.

But in truth calls for greater Mayoral transparency are as old as the Greater London Authority itself.

At the very first London Assembly meeting way back in May 2000, Assembly Members called on Ken Livingstone to waive his right to withhold advice he received from officers.

And two weeks later at the first ever Mayor’s Question Time, Ken promised his officers would draw up proposals to deliver an “open and accessible government for London”.

A nice ideal, and yet just minutes before Ken told Assembly Member John Biggs that “Many meetings would not take place if their minutes were going to be widely publicised as with my meetings with Ford’s European Management.”

So there, right at the very beginning of our shiny new Government, was a promise of openness and transparency fatally compromised by a Mayoral belief that you can’t do business if the details are in the public domain.

Over the past thirteen years and across two Mayoral administrations London Assembly Members, City Hall commentators and ordinary Londoners have repeatedly come up against the same belief and assertion.

I most frequently hear it from Transport for London as they strive to justify denying or withholding the latest requested piece of information.

Such is the manic ferocity with which they seek to hold on to information that TfL often gives the impression of seeing itself as the keeper of some sacred religious relic to which only the most pure and proven believers should be granted access.

But of course what they’re actually being asked to share is information paid for, and belonging to, Londoners.

That ingrained dislike of, and refusal to, release information is challenged in a new London Assembly report published on Wednesday.

Led by John Biggs on behalf of the Assembly’s GLA Oversight Committee, the report contains a number of excellent recommendations designed to ensure that City Hall and its empire finally delivers the openness both Ken and Boris promised.

One is so startlingly simple that I’m surprised no-one has suggested it before – that every document and report be written with the expectation of being placed in the public domain, that only truly confidential information be redacted and where redactions would be disruptive to comprehension that documents be split into public and private parts with only the absolute minimum withheld from the public.

For many in the GLA family this presumption of publication would be a massive and unwelcome change.

There are parts of the group which see the release of any information as a reduction in their power and independence while others often look as if they’d be happier in the commercial sector where political leaders and voters didn’t need to be indulged.

Certainly TfL loves to invoke commercial exemptions but can often be inconsistent in their application.

Last August I asked for “The total sum received so far from Barclays for sponsorship of the cycle hire scheme” only to be told the skies would fall in if they gave me the figure.

Yet four months later they provided the exact same information, revealing the bank paid £13.43 million “up to the end of Financial Year 2012″, without any apparent harm to their ability to negotiate contracts and get good value for the taxpayer.

Even when TfL does release information it often plumps for the most secretive method possible.

My request for a copy of any cable car passenger surveys crossed with its cherry picking of at least one such survey but its press office repeatedly refused to hand over the full document.

Later its FOI team claimed an exemption from providing the surveys on the grounds that the information was scheduled for future publication.

When the surveys were finally published TfL just slipped them up onto their website – no press release, no announcement, no word that they were there until asked by an Assembly Member.

Of course it’s clear to see why, the documents proved what critics claimed all along – that the cable car is a tourist attraction and not part of the wider transport network.

TfL doesn’t really like answering questions from anyone – officers are openly rude to Assembly Members, one AM recently told me how a staff member had received an “aggressive” phone call after the AM had issued a comment TfL took exception to.

I know how that feels.

I’ve had at least three very sweary phone calls from press officers for running stories they don’t like and one once told me I couldn’t have requested information if I wanted it “for any more negative stories”.

Kinder souls than I might be tempted to see that remark as a joke, and yet it so resonates with a remark by Transport Commissioner Sir Peter Hendy quoted on page 18 of today’s report:

“You would like of course for us to show every failing in the organisation on a piece of paper where it could be triumphed by one or more people in the Assembly as an example of public sector ineptitude, but actually the truth is that this is a very commercial organisation and I have some experience of running private sector organisations and you do not do your best commercial negotiation in public.”

that I cannot help but wonder if it represents the true TfL corporate mindset.

The consequence of their rudeness and aggression is that I hardly ever call the TfL press office and only occasionally bother emailing them, if I need a quote it’s often quicker to run the story and wait for their rapid reaction squad to come running with a request to add their point of view to the story.

And I know other journalists find it just as hard to get even a simple comment from them. There seems to be a naive belief that critical or negative stories will simply vanish if TfL refuses to play ball.

All of this should give you some idea of the challenge Team Boris faces – assuming they’re so minded – in implementing the Assembly’s recommendations and challenging the ‘secrecy first’ culture so prevalent in much of the group.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Over at the fire authority they have a very different approach to being asked for information – they provide it as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

No FOIs needed to look at the Fire Commissioner’s expenses, no pitched battles to find out how many attended consultation meetings and, unlike TfL, no blacklisting of journalists from photo-ops for writing stories they don’t like.

And yet, despite what some GLA staff might think, this openness hasn’t fettered the authority’s ability to provide strong strategic leadership or prevented fire fighters providing their valuable service to Londoners.

I hope that with the good parts of the GLA family as examples of why transparency is nothing to be scared of, Boris is up to the task of picking up and implementing the report’s recommendations.

He’s got mixed form on the cause of transparency – on the plus side he established the data store, on the bad he set up an official Mayoral agency as a limited company, exempting it from scrutiny.

This report is an opportunity to deliver on past promises and ensure the next Assembly has access to the information it needs to properly hold his successor to account.