Transparency renders government more opaque

Questions are raised about the recording of decision-making by the Government: as the police search computers for evidence in the cash-for-peerages scandal, has e-mail changed the way things are recorded? According to The Times, much of Government decision-making "vaporises before it is recorded":

"Old departmental records contain meticulous detail about policy formulation. We can allocate responsibility for Suez, but it may prove impossible to apportion blame for modern wars. Nowadays decisions such as going to war are not always minuted. As the Hutton and Butler inquiries discovered, they are often taken in informal discussions by e-mail or on the telephone.

"The Freedom of Information Act has made the absence of a paper trail more serious. Transparency has had the perverse effect of rendering government more opaque. Civil servants rush to destroy documents, their fondness for the shredding machine heightened by the certainty that ministers will blame them for errors that are entirely their own.

"Electronic record-keeping should be easy. Computers can store more than paper files and their contents are easier to access. But the advantages of digital technology are redundant if data are never captured. Record-keeping is being castrated by instant communications and the absence of mechanisms by which they can be held for posterity.

"America confronted this in the 1960s. Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era Defence Secretary pioneered the use of computers in government. His officials learnt to store electronic records before their potential as a means of concealment was considered. Today the National Archives, the US government body, keeps an example of every generation of computer so that old programs are not rendered inaccessible by technological change.

"Britain must do the same or my grandchildren will know less about the occupation of Iraq than I do about the failure of appeasement. That may suit party fundraisers, but it betrays Britain."

E-mail is the end of history (Comment in The Times, 14 July 2006)