An interesting thing happened to me the other day. I’d like to tell you about it but I was banned or at least barred. I was in a meeting with Broadband Delivery UK in the HM Treasury building on Horse Guards Road and it was a few days before the election and the cloak of purdah had fallen upon us. There was a twitter embargo. I’m not even sure if I was allowed to take any notes but I slipped some through the net.
Purdah is a strange word to use in such a context. I always took it to mean the custom that some communities have of veiling their women folk to avoid the prying eyes of men or strangers. It has slipped into our vernacular over the last few years and has come to mean to be in hiding or in isolation.
In a political context we go into a period of purdah just prior to an election and we need to be careful about what we say and publish. As a public sector employee I’m not allowed to publish anything during this period which is designed, either consciously or unconsciously, to influence support for a political party
The word derives from the Persian pardah meaning a veil and the period of purdah for this election started on 30 March.
Now I can understand the nervousness around breaking any rules around publication of information that may get the politicians or myself into trouble. After all I was sitting in the heart of government. What I can’t understand however was the complete ban on any communication going out. I tweet all the time and have managed to not get into trouble so far. The liability would be on me if I say something wrong.
We talk about Chatham House rules as if this gives us indemnity for our indiscretion. It is like when someone prefaces what they are about to say with ‘all due respect’ or ‘please take this in the manner in which is it intended’ you know that it is going to be open season. The use of Chatham House rules is a ruse to say something contentious that you don’t want to be linked to. If you don’t want something to be attributed to you then don’t say it or don’t write it down.
I did not become aware of anything throughout the day that could have won it for one party or another. There was nothing that would raise the hackles as being politically sensitive. The provision of broadband to the populace is well documented and has had cross party support for a long time. I did however come across things that I should not mention under the normal constraints of commercial confidentiality. Playing the purdah card was not necessary.
Open government will never be realised as long as we keep our mouths shut and bend to the misinterpretation of rules that were deigned to provide consistency and fairness rather than secrecy and obfuscation. Purdah should not mean that a veil is drawn over the workings of the administration.
As it happens I did tweet the odd message but nothing that contravened our instructions.