The Olympics Organising Committee Run Rings Around Transparency

Recently Lia Hervey, Sky Sports News, attempted to seek information on the breakdown of Olympic tickets. Although Locog (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) has public sector funding, FOI does not apply and they refused to provide the information. Ian Clark looks at this case, and whether private companies should fall under transparency legislation.

Image: CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: John Biehler

 

The 2012 London Olympics is shaping up to be the largest sporting event ever held in this country.  Not only will it be the largest, it is also likely to be the most expensive sporting event hosted in the UK.  Current estimates place the overall public sector funding package for the Games at £9.298bn, a not insignificant sum of money.

Of course, the preparations for the London Olympics have not been without their critics.  In an era of austerity and public spending cuts, the question is often asked “why should we spend vast sums of money on a sporting event?”.  Indeed, when the rest of us are forced to tighten our belts, it appears to many a little unfair that the state is spending a significant sum of money on such an extravagance.  With austerity as the backdrop, and a government committed to ushering in a “new era of transparency”, you would expect transparency to be at the heart of the planning process for the Olympics, primarily to provide reassurance about the nature of any public spending on the event.

In terms of the planning and development of the 2012 Summer and Paralympic games, the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Locog).  Locog, as its website makes clear, is a “private company limited by guarantee and is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000”.  If you ask nicely, they may or may not answer general queries with the information you require, although they are under no obligation to do so.  Not a promising start.

This lack of transparency was highlighted recently when it emerged that Lia Hervey, Sky Sports News’ Olympics producer, had attempted to seek further information about the breakdown of Olympic tickets to the public by sport and session.  Of course, as Locog is not obliged to provide this information due to its status as a private company, it has refused to provide this information, despite concerns that savings from the public sector package appear to be trickling over to Locog.  However, whilst it is a private company, Locog has been in receipt of public funding to the tune of £183m.

Increasingly, the exemption of the private sector from the Freedom of Information Act is looking like an anachronism.  As services are contracted out due to “austerity measures”, so services that were once open to public scrutiny now fall into private hands which are not subject to the same degree of transparency.  Such services become a closed shop with the general public given no right to know how their services are being delivered, regardless of the amount of taxpayers funding that subsidises such services.  It is for this reason that if austerity is pursued, such a policy should be coupled with a widening of transparency legislation to encompass the private sector, ensuring that they too are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Indeed, this is not a new idea.  In December 2009, the Scottish government declared that it would consider extending FoI legislation to cover:

“…contractors who build and maintain hospitals and schools, who operate and maintain trunk roads under the PFI Initiative or who run privately managed prisons or provide prison escort services. Only contracts above certain values would be covered. Trusts running local authority sports, leisure and cultural facilities were also being considered for inclusion along with the Glasgow Housing Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland.”

By January 2011, the Scottish government (under pressure from the private sector and despite popular support) reversed its position because “a majority of the bodies concerned had opposed being brought under the Act, although there was “near universal support” from everyone else who had commented on the proposals.”

As George Monbiot noted earlier this year, the Freedom of Information Act already has a clause enabling an extension of the Act to companies with public contracts but they have not, as yet, exercised this clause.  Indeed, the Commons public accounts committee recently called on companies doing business with central government to be subject to Freedom of Information legislation.  Margaret Hodge, chair of the Committee, argued that the Freedom of Information Act should be extended to ensure that private companies are “compelled to share with the public information on contracts which are funded with public money.”  Such calls are, of course, met with opposition by those that would be affected by extension of this legislation, such as the CBI who claimed that:

"Because of the commercial sensitivity associated with contracts delivered by businesses and charities operating in a competitive environment, we do not believe that extending the scope of Freedom of Information requests is an appropriate way of ensuring transparency."

Of course, transparency need not put at risk commercial sensitivities, as Monbiot points out in the article referenced above, South Africa provides a general right of access to the records of private bodies, whilst those same bodies also retain the right to “protect material that is of genuine commercial confidentiality.”  If it can work in South Africa, there is no reason why we cannot make it work here.

In an era of austerity and spending cuts, it is essential that there is complete transparency about both the process of government and the delivery of public services.  If private sector contractors are delivering public services whilst in the receipt of taxpayers’ money, it is clear that they should be subject to the same scrutiny as other taxpayer funded services.  When we are being asked to make sacrifices in order to reduce the deficit, we should have absolute clarity on where exactly our money is being spent.  This means that there must be transparency across the board, encompassing both public and private sectors in the provision of public services. The Act should be strengthened not weakened to the point of worthlessness. Without transparency, the government’s austerity programme is the ideological equivalent of the Artful Dodger; picking the pockets of an unsuspecting public.

 

Ian Clark tweets at @ijclark and blogs at infoism.co.uk/blog

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Comments

Comments (1)

  1. Trevor Craig:
    Jun 27, 2012 at 07:31 PM

    I'm a massive fan of FOI but I don’t think it should be extended to genuinely private companies. What you describe above is really a quango being setup in such a way to avoid transparency, this is the same at network rail and I'm sure other public sector bodies who don't want us to know what they are doing with our money. I do have concerns with extending FOI into what are genuinely private companies that sub contract to the public sector. There are lots of problems already in the area of competitive tendering. What can happen is companies pitch for the business at a price that makes them a loss to get their foot in the door and then try and raise money in other ways, charging fortunes to change light bulbs for example. I'm not a fan of this system but unless it was changed FOI would mean the competing companies would be able to see what each other’s bids were and would make the whole thing meaningless. It would be a poker game were all the players knew what cards the others held. The bidding calculations the companies should make on proper commercial grounds would be less of a factor and would cause the problem I described above even worse. The other problem would be malicious requests between companies. Some sort of mechanism would have to be setup to prevent this because a small company running at low margins could easily be bankrupted by complying with requests. Back to Locog and the Olympics, what annoys me most is when we went for the Olympics we as taxpayers were told it would cost 2 billion. And the government is now patting itself on the back that they have kept it under ten and there has never been a proper explanation of why it changed. I suspect it a combination of government spin and the pitching below cost nonsense I describe above.

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By Ian Clark on Jun 27, 2012

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