If you care about how your money is spent or why politicians and senior officials make certain decisions, than today you owe a nod of thanks to the 25 members of the London Assembly.
Mayor Boris Johnson has agreed to implement all eight recommendations of the Assembly’s June 2013 report on transparency, meaning that soon almost all contracts signed by City Hall and its agencies will be available online for public scrutiny.
As the anti-Israeli clauses in Transport for London’s sponsorship deal with Emirates proves, early and routine publication of contracts some would prefer to keep secret can only ever be a good thing.
And in his response to Assembly Members, Boris sends an important message to the heads of the two parts of his empire which attract the most complaints about transparency – the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, and TfL – saying:
“I am of the view that transparency should be led from the top of each organisation and so I would expect the chief executive of each body, or equivalent, to be the responsible officer for transparency issues.”
It could not be clearer. In future, and with the Mayor’s full blessing, we can blame Sir Peter Hendy and Deputy Mayor Stephen Greenhalgh personally for any transparency failings in their organisations.
As I’ve written before, the push for greater access to information held by City Hall and its agencies is nothing new, at the very first Mayor’s Question Time in 2000 AMs wanted more information published so they and the public could better hold the Mayor to account.
Boris’s response to the report is so emphatic and full that I’m hopeful today marks an important step in changing the culture within some agencies and hammering home the point that every pound spent and every decision made should be open to public examination and scrutiny.
But while you might not know it for the moaning that sometimes pours from these pages, we in London have enjoyed greater levels of openness and transparency than many of our out of London brethren.
Unlike far too many councils, City Hall has never been a place where you’ll get thrown out or have the police called just for Tweeting about a meeting.
And the information that’s already published online often surpasses both what many bodies make available and expect to be asked to provide.
That point has been hammered home to me over the past week as responses have trickled in from the UK’s various police forces in answer to an FOI request asking what, if any, payments they make to train companies to provide free travel to officers.
Several forces asked if we could discuss the request over the phone before they sent a formal written response. In almost all resulting phone calls the forces expressed genuine bemusement and puzzlement that anyone would actually ask how they spend their money.
And the ATOC press office seemed both surprised and deeply unamused that MOPAC routinely publish details of major expenditure, including their demand for £80m to allow cops to travel on their networks.
So City Hall has some success stories to tell.
But the approach to publishing information has for too long been inconsistent and too dependent on the whims and mindsets of individual staff and agencies.
By persuading the Mayor to agree to a single transparency framework for his entire empire, the Assembly has ensured that the secretive and unhelpful cultures in some bodies will now finally have to change.
A lot is often made of the Assembly’s lack of formal powers and too often it’s dismissed as a mere “talking shop” unable to deliver anything of value to Londoners.
But the truth, long known to those of us who watch it at work, is that when all 25 Assembly Members stand together the body makes a powerful, cross-party foil to any Mayor.
Last year it used that strength to force the MOPAC to concede that AMs had a right of access to the Met’s senior management, today it’s ensured that Londoners will be able to scrutinise how almost every penny of their money is spent.
And for this City Hall observer there’s something inescapably delicious about the fact that the agencies who will find the changes most painful and unwelcome are the two which have done their best to be as contemptuous and unhelpful to AMs as possible and so prompted the Assembly’s transparency audit.
That’s one hell of an own goal!
Update: It looks like there’s to be no room for slacking and complacency on either side of the information battle – Caroline Pidgeon AM, Leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group, has issued the following comment:
“It has been a long fight but the Mayor’s response to the repeated calls by the London Assembly for far more information to be placed in the public domain over contracts signed at City Hall is incredibly welcome.
“However the battle for openness is far from over. We must continue to push more transparency, especially over the planning decisions made by the Mayor and also ensure that the Mayor publishes far more information he receives from Transport for London in the run up to his annual fare announcement.”