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Five Ideas to Open Up Intelligence

For decades we have been living through a change in our expectations of how Government works. From the NHS to social care, culture to transport, the boundaries of Government have become much more porous, more open, more participatory.

For decades we have been living through a change in our expectations of how Government works. From the NHS to social care, culture to transport, the boundaries of Government have become much more porous, more open, more participatory. Service users, interest groups, community leaders, professional bodies, charities and campaigners have been brought in, and the civil service has reached out. This philosophy - that transparent, participatory and collaborative Government is good government - sits behind many of the important reforms that are happening here and abroad. Official data has become open data. Policy-making is becoming open policy-making. It, in the words of the Cabinet office, 'will become the default'. Many people perhaps miss quite how revolutionary the official language used to describe these reforms really is.

There are lots of reasons behind this change, but at core is the slow and steady decline of paternalism. We're less subservient to Civil Servants and Ministers with Oxbridge degrees. People want to decide whether something is right themselves, and demand to know what they need to know to make this judgment: public argument, explanation, evidence and justification.

We have come a long way in opening up our intelligence agencies since the Cold War. For 19 years now, GCHQ (with sister agencies, the Security Service and SIS) have been on a firm, visible, constitutional footing. The National Security Strategy gives a nod to the 'active participation' in security work, 'of the widest-cross section of society'. Just today, GCHQ launched a new website. It has a 'who we are' section, and a substantial section devoted to press and media.

The often secret and sensitive nature of intelligence work has provided a powerful argument for why the business of Government is still done differently here than elsewhere. For very good reasons, the values of open, collaborative and participatory governance has not filtered in the day-to-day work of intelligence and security agencies. Decisions are taken by small communities of security cleared Civil Servants and a sprinkling of respected and trusted experts.

The latest drip-feed of Snowden disclosures have dragged that most murky business of government into the light. It has shown is that the law and practice of intelligence has been on a long, paternalistic, technocratic drift. It is clear that the steps being taken to protect society are not tallying with what most people would probably want, or think reasonable: probably because the technology has drastically outpaced the legal framework.

This is a policy area that is very difficult to discuss properly. Security services cannot reveal everything they do, nor the scale of the threat, for good reason, which makes public discussion and debate about proportionality almost impossible (imagine - if Prism had been used to stop terrorists obtaining a nuclear bomb, I think we'd all support it). This is incredibly damaging: with each new revelation, the Government digs in under the bombardment, and privacy and liberty campaigners in consequence become more exasperated and throw more criticism at them.

The current situation is polarizied and unsustainable. The Government cannot be satisfied with the current arrangements. Campaigners like Liberty cannot talk about the Government's 'contempt for freedoms' as if these steps are not being taken to help protect a fragile liberal democracy (with plenty of rights, freedoms and the rule of law) in a dangerous and uncertain world. If everyone digs in, no-one gets anywhere.

The way forward is to slowly, responsibly, and safely nudge security, defence and intelligence policy towards a Responsible Openness: the idea that we all want a society where our rights are respected and where we are all safe, and we all have a stake in how both these aims are achieved.

This is obviously far from easy. But we all, citizen and official alike, need to be creative in finding ways to bring people into these worlds as legitimate stakeholders with important points of view and voices that should be heard. So here are five ideas for how we might do that:

  • Surveillance Juries: Normal citizens selected at random, security cleared and then involved directly in the task of overseeing intelligence work.
  • Regular, de-politicised, and evidence-based assessments of the level of threat that we face. The current counter-terrorism threat-levels notify us of changes, but do not inform us why.
  • Involve civil liberty and citizen groups in intelligence and security work. It is vital for the maturity of public debate to allow civic society organisations to understand the practical, daily dilemmas that are faced to keep us safe. Embedding liberty campaigners in police command centers during the policing of demonstrations has worked well: we know the police are being robustly and independently overseen, but are spared the knee-jerk criticisms.
  • Relaxing state classification policy: A classification regime, the Government Security Classifications Policy will come into place in 2014. It will simplify the current system, but there are no signs it will allow more documents to be publicly and routinely viewable. In the world of security and intelligence, the default attitude is to classify information. This needs to be challenged.
  • Use new technologies to 'co-produce' safety: there is great potential for social media to create networks of officials and citizens cooperating together to keep their society safe. (read more about that here).

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