Openness claim is clearly in doubt

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THE suppression of our report on openness in the Scottish water industry by the quango which commissioned it is one of those surreal experiences that seems to belong more in the script of an episode of Yes, Minister than the much-vaunted new, open Scotland.

The Water Customer Consultation Panels had commissioned us to evaluate the extent to which the water industry was living up to government standards on openness, transparency and consultation. Yet our report was not published, nor even shown to MSPs, despite it having been shared with both the Scottish Executive and Scottish Water.

The convener of the panels, Ian Smith, initially defended the decision by saying that the report was out of date when it was delivered. This was also the line taken by Scottish Water. Its director of customer service, Cheryl Black, noted that the research was completed in September 2003 based on data from 2002. Both of these statements were false.

In an appearance on Newsnight Scotland a few days ago, Mr Smith more or less confessed that the reason they had not published our report was that his approach to protecting customer interests was to work quietly with Scottish Water.

It is certainly arguable that a "softly, softly" approach might be a more effective way to get results with Scottish Water and the Executive. But this Sir Humphrey-like approach to democracy and accountability means that the WCCP is the watchdog that will not bark.

The result is that neither the public nor even the MSPs, to whom the WCCP is accountable, are kept in the loop of accountability. Mr Smith insists that our report was not suppressed, suggesting that it was treated in the same way as two other reports commissioned by the panels.

This is simply false. Anyone who visits the website of the panels (www.watercustomer.org) can see that the two other reports on "affordability of water charges" and "principles of charging" are available for public inspection. This highlights the twin problems we found more generally in the Scottish water industry: an antipathy towards disclosure and a tendentious approach to public information.

The very raison d’etre of the WCCP is to represent customers. Yet the convener of the panel seems much more concerned with protecting the interests of the sensitivities of the Executive and Scottish Water.

BUT when all is said and done the role of the WCCP here is a side issue. The real question which our report highlights is that the Scottish water industry, including Scottish Water, the Water Industry Commissioner and the Executive, do not run an open and transparent regime. They prefer to keep the public in the dark.

When we conducted our research we found evidence that both Scottish Water and the Executive were not providing basic documentation on the operation of the industry.

When we asked for these documents directly we were given short shrift. Cheryl Black wrote to us saying that: "We have no knowledge of the work you are doing and until it is clear what the information is likely to be used for we are not prepared to release it." Not very open and transparent.

Under Scotland’s new Freedom of Information legislation, there is a presumption of openness. It is explicitly noted to be inappropriate to ask what information is to be used for in response to requests.

It is said by Scottish Water that it has learnt from our report and that all of the recommendations have been acted upon. So a few days ago we used its website search engine to try and access these documents. Out of seven key documents we tried to access in 2003, none are available.

This does rather suggest that Scottish Water is not as open and transparent as it could be. Our findings are echoed by those of the finance committee of the Scottish Parliament, which also documented problems of transparency and openness.

In our report we also highlighted some cases where Scottish Water had departed from required standards on issuing non-tendentious information.

In other words, it seemed to have adopted some spin techniques from the private sector on which it has modelled itself. This seemed to us to be at the root of the problems faced by Scottish Water’s communication difficulties.

In our report we surveyed best practice on openness in the water industry across the world. Our clear finding was that public sector bodies tended to provide the best examples of consultation and openness.

Since then, Scottish Water has appointed a new director of corporate affairs, the former BBC producer Atholl Duncan. He has reportedly made significant changes to the communication effort of Scottish Water.

But if the handling of our report is anything to go by, is it the case that Scottish Water is content to issue information which it knows to be false?

IF so, this does raise difficult questions about the extent to which it is living up to the required standards on non-tendentious information in the public sector. Scottish Water remains publicly owned and it has a duty to be publicly accountable and open.

In the last year it has been the subject of a campaign of vilification by those with an agenda to privatise water. Our own research shows that the best way to defend against such campaigns is to be open and responsive to the public in order to build their trust and confidence. To adopt the opposite course of using private sector spin techniques will only damage public support for the water industry.

Our questions to Scottish Water are:

• If you have changed, why not provide access to basic documentation?

• Why not commit yourself to avoiding spin techniques in the future?

• Why not disclose in detail the changes that have been made to improve openness and accountability?

We await the publication of its answers in a form accessible to all of its customers.

• David Miller is professor of sociology at Strathclyde University

• The report on openness is available at http://homepages.strath.ac.uk/~his04105/Water.html

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