Why We Need Openness, Part 5748


One of the central themes of this blog is that the openness that powers the continuing rise and success of open source can be applied to most other areas – in business, and in life generally. No better proof of that could be found than the revelations today about the widespread and thoroughgoing abuse of the expenses system by senior UK politicians.

Self-evidently, we need openness in order to uncover this kind of thing. But openness is not just about discovering retrospectively where things have gone wrong: more positively, it can be used to ensure that things don't go wrong in the first place.

For example, in the present case, it is true that some kind of expenses system is necessary – it would be unfair if politicians were unable to claim for justified expenses. The question then becomes, how do we ensure that *only* justified expenses are claimed?

I think the answer is pretty clear from the events of this morning. While details of their expenses mouldered in the darkness of secrecy, UK politicians were clearly willing to twist the rules out of all recognition, secure in the knowledge that nobody would ever be the wiser. Now that this distortion has been exposed, the same politicians are distancing themselves from those abuses and pledging to reform the system that allowed them to game it.

Imagine if the expense system had been open to scrutiny as a matter of course. None of those now revealed as “creative” with their expenses would have tried such a thing. Instead, they would have limited themselves to precisely those claims that they knew were justified and that would be accepted as reasonably by the electorate. Openness would have ensure that they self-censored.

It's obvious now why MPs fought so hard to keep their expenses secret, since they knew there would be public outrage over their actions. But the great thing about the present leak is that there is now no reason not to *keep* them open, since the dirty laundry has been aired, and everyone agrees that the system needs changing.

The details about what should and shouldn't be allowable can be argued over; but the primary requirement for a fair system is simply that it be open; that not only allows everyone to *see* that it's fair, it also goes a long way to policing that fairness.

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