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How Nigerian debates about transparency can help public scrutiny of the UK’s Covid 19 response

Portia Roelofs

25.06.2020

This year, the UK ranked among the top twenty least corrupt countries in the world. Yet as the details of the government pandemic procurement emerge, it's hard to ignore how many contracts have gone to the family members and close associates of senior Conservative Party and Downing Street figures. Whilst Nigeria might not be the first country to spring to mind when you think of good governance, research from the country’s southwest offers ways of rethinking transparency to better address the current crisis.

The word transparency conjures images of budgets on websites, the publication of figures and statistics and crusades to get complex legal documents into the public domain. Two decades of good governance programmes around the world have promoted this vision of transparency by making more data more easily accessible. Diverse schemes, ranging from Data.gov in the US, to Ugandan government initiatives to publish schools’ budgets in local newspapers, have been set up to advance this goal. The hope is that ordinary people will be empowered to sift through it and better hold their governments to account. Indeed, with the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic, transparency seems increasingly tied to complex debates over data analysis. Yet, there are common-sense limitations to transparency’s democratic potential when its only understood in this data-focussed way.

My research shows that transparency can be understood in different ways. Each of these have different political consequences. This ‘transparency in data’ approach is unsurprisingly rather off-putting to the average citizen: it puts power in the hands of those who ‘speak the language’ of account, audits and procurement law. As Thandika Mkandawire, the late Professor of African Development at LSE argued, democracy suffers when accountability is equated with accounting. In contrast to the inevitable complexity of ‘transparency in data’, looking instead at ‘transparency in people’ offers a much more immediate picture of how power operates. Transparency in people means making visible the connections between powerful actors and the social networks in which they are embedded.

The concept of transparency in people is especially useful in a country like the UK which is among the most unequal countries in the OECD, and where cultural, political and economic power is concentrated in the hands of narrow demographic. The role of elite institutions, like private schools and Oxbridge, in reproducing the ruling class is well documented, but transparency in people invites us to shine a light on specific personal relationships and networks.

Take for example Britain’s belated efforts to build an infrastructure for responding to the Covid 19 pandemic: the NHSX Covid Data contract. Looking at this through the lens of transparency in data foregrounds an investigation of the “obscure statutory instrument” through which five firms won the contract without any competitive bidding. Transparency in people simply highlights that the owner of one of the firms – Marc Warner - is the brother of someone who ran the Conservative Party’s election model before being recruited to work in Downing Street by Dominic Cummings.  Another example is Serco which is in advanced talks to run the contact tracing service. Transparency in data asks whether the contract and company records would pass a financial audit (which in previous government contracts it hasn’t). Transparency in people merely highlights that the serving Minister of State for Health, Edward Agar, was Serco’s head of Public Affairs in Europe until he joined the House of Commons in 2015.  Or that the CEO of Serco is the brother of a former high-ranking Conservative Party MP.

Having spent my career researching debates about good governance in Nigeria, British public discourse by contrast looks curiously naïve about these connections. In my conversations with street traders, local politicians, and community organisers on the streets of Ibadan and Lagos I was struck by the near encyclopaedic level of common knowledge about the life histories and social networks of major politicians and businessmen. News articles routinely provide extensive biographical details to help situate major politicians and businessmen in their social and class context. People I spoke to were aware that as those in power moved from elite schools, through ministries, government offices and the head quarters of transnational companies they carried with them a growing set of loyalties, interests and relationships. As Isaac Albert, Professor of African History and Peace Studies at the University of Ibadan, argues in his theorisation of ‘cabals’: an understanding of informal connections is as important for constraining power as tracking what happens at the level of formal institutions.

The mixing of business, political and familial connections is not in itself evidence of corruption: legally speaking, the contracting in every case might well have been ‘by the book’. Maybe the fact that Dido Harding oversaw a massive data breach at TalkTalk only to be given the job for managing the track and trace programme has nothing to do with the fact she is married to a serving Tory MP. But thinking about transparency in terms of social connections is vital for anyone interested in increasing public participation in democracy.

First, transparency in people helps to identify an already existing popular demand. The outcry over the secretive nature of the Government’s scientific advisory group, SAGE, was as much about revealing its membership as it was about revealing models and minutes.

Second, there is evidence that if transparency in people is lacking, with social connections not presented honestly and accurately, people will seek to fill in the gaps themselves. Conspiracy theories arise out of a desire to make unseen connections visible. Following the allocation of £1.7 million contract to revamp the electoral register to firm Idox just before the 2019, some questioned why a firm in which a Cabinet Minister held shares was given a lucrative contract without tender. Six months later, and further claims about Idox’s links to the Government emerged online on the basis the fact of Dominic Cummings breaking lockdown to travel to the general vicinity of the company’s headquarters and a member of staff sharing his surname. The fact they shared a name was confirmed as a coincidence and more expansive theories of foul-play discredited, but it shows the speed with which people will supply their own answers if transparency is unforthcoming.

By considering legalistic forms of transparency in light of the business and familial connections that they legitimate, we see the third advantage of transparency in people for democracy: it throws the class-bias of existing institutional rules into sharp relief. If the existing rules permit such a dense interrelation of business and government interests, then maybe it’d be better for democracy if the rules changed (especially as scientists and public health experts have questioned the efficacy of big private firms versus a localised GP run pandemic response in the first place). Similar questions can be asked about official guidelines that allow people like former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley to walk out of Whitehall and into private consulting gigs with firms who benefit from exploiting his privatisation reforms

Here again, the Nigerian experience is instructive: whilst different conceptions of transparency can work together, they are often are in tension. Debates about transparency in Nigeria show that an exclusive focus on complex, documentary forms of transparency leads to fears that such tools can be manipulated by savvy elites to cover their tracks making power less transparent. As state contracting and procurement in southwestern states like Lagos and Oyo moved closer to ‘international best practice’, local commentators and voters speculated that those in power would use their elite education and ‘exposure’ to outsmart the regulators. Indeed, popular debates about the developmental achievements of the ‘Lagos Model’ – for example, improved digital taxation systems and soaring new toll bridges – show that ordinary people’s scepticism goes beyond simply doubting the credentials of supposedly ‘squeaky clean’ politicians who are adept at ‘talking grammar’. It extends to an awareness of the way the much-touted governance innovations like public-private partnerships create new and unexamined sources of patronage for domestic and international actors.

Done well of course, transparency in data can support the political power of transparency in people: careful analysis of documentary evidence helps unearth and substantiate hidden social connections. A recent investigation by Chloe Farand and Mat Hope and Richard Collett-White for Desmog, for example, reveals the way that ideology and resources travel through social networks by “mapping the who’s who of Brexit and Climate Denial”. With regard to the pandemic, groups like the Open Contracting Partnership do important work within the rubric of transparency in data and have a key role in holding the Government to disclosure and compliance standards. But transparency in people would allow us to link these rather technocratic, micro-level analyses of government procurement to broader social and political questions, and help us to interrogate opaque relations of elite power. This has never been more urgent for the left. With UK excess deaths from Covid 19 the highest in Europe, it is right that Labour MPs are calling out Conservative party ‘cronyism’.

Transparency in people provides an accessible way of framing debates about class power that neither relies on mastery of accounting jargon nor slides into conspiracy theories. It empowers ordinary voters to pose important if obvious questions: given there are 60 million people in Britain, how come so many of the people making money from Government contracts know each other?

 

Dr Portia Roelofs is the Clayman-Fulford Junior Research Fellow in Politics and Political Theory at St Anne's College, Oxford. Her research looks at how ideas of good governance, transparency and legitimate distribution are politically contested, with a focus on Nigeria. She’s written about the politics of academic knowledge production for the LSE Impact Blog and the Journal of African Cultural Studies.

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