A new website, publishing information of meetings that MPs have with lobbyists and outside interests, is now live.
Who’s Lobbying aims to present this data — which is already in the public domain, but frequently buried in difficult-to-find PDF files — in an easily accessible and searchable format.
It also includes “treemaps” — or data visualisations of how much time is spent with different organisations and their lobbyists. As the site explains:
The treemap shows about a quarter of the Department of Energy and Climate Change meetings are with power companies. Only a small fraction are with environmental or climate change organisations.
While there are still a few issues to be straightened out, this is potentially a hugely valuable tool for journalists and campaigners alike. It will be easier to insist on an equal hearing if evidence of disproportionate time spent with one side is readily available.
Moreover, one of the issues that the site faces at the moment raises important questions about the nature of the coalition’s frequently avowed commitment to transparency. This is explained in a blog on the site:
Unfortunately Number 10 and the Cabinet Office have not mandated a consistent format for publishing ministerial meeting information…
All other departments [apart from the Department for Transport] only provided the month of each meeting – was that an instruction given centrally to departments? Because of this it isn’t possible to determine if two ministers were at the same meeting. Our analysis is likely to be double counting meetings with two ministers in attendance.
Under the previous Labour government, departments had published dates for individual meetings. In this regard, are we seeing less transparency under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition?
It’s possible — as the blog points out — that this is the result of “teething problems” as the government’s transparency agenda is implemented. If this is the case, this new tool will apply pressure by scrutinising these processes. If not, it could be used to draw attention to a serious hole in transparency procedures.