LONDON — PRIME Minister John Major has begun to lift the veil of secrecy that has long hidden the machinery of government from the British public.
But the bureaucrats of Whitehall (the London street that is the country's administrative center), who are used to operating behind closed doors, are muttering that there are limits to what citizens need to know. Civil servants say that Mr. Major's version of glasnost may make effective government difficult or impossible.
In a sharp departure from tradition, Major has decided to name 26 Cabinet committees and subcommittees whose existence and membership had never before been officially admitted.
Also he published the political and administrative guidelines government ministers receive when they take over their jobs, and revealed the names of the heads of Britain's two secret service organizations - MI5 and MI6. Until now, the names were officially secret, although other officials and members of the news media were aware who the secret service chiefs were.
In another move designed to persuade citizens that he wished to modernize Britain's political system Major stunned civil servants and other members of the "establishment" by saying he was unhappy with the archaic system of knighthoods and other honors. Class-based system
He has ordered a study of the system which appears to be class-based and therefore unfair in its application. A Whitehall source drew attention to disparities in the way honors are awarded.
"A very senior civil servant can expect a knighthood for doing his ordinary duty," the source said, "but a man or woman who spends a lifetime doing humanitarian work seldom gets more than a minor honor and may get nothing at all."
There is no counterpart in Britain of the First Amendment in the American Constitution and no freedom of information legislation. This means that the news media face difficulty obtaining guidelines about trends in the economy, such as unemployment statistics or inflation figures, until ministers decide to release them.
"There is a belief about that daylight is good for decisionmaking," said one senior civil servant, who declined to be named. "That may be fine in some areas, but in such matters as defense, security and economic policy secrecy has to be maintained."
William Waldegrave, who has been put in charge of pushing through changes to Whitehall's secrecy-bound culture, says he has the prime minister's unstinting support. "Government should be as open as possible," he said.
Mr. Waldegrave, who has senior Cabinet rank, is also responsible for the Citizens' Charter - a set of officially backed guarantees to consumers that they can expect satisfactory service from government departments and publicly owned utilities, including hospitals, schools, and energy and water companies.
Already the government has mailed to most taxpayers copies of a Citizens' Charter stating in general terms the level of service they can expect from government departments and public utilities.
In public hospitals, charters specifying patients' rights have been pinned on walls. Travelers arriving at British airports can examine a charter stating what rights they have in relation to customs and immigration procedures. Travelers on British Rail can demand money back if trains are consistently late.
Publication of the list of Cabinet committees is in some ways Major's boldest venture into glasnost. The committees, which cover all areas of government, meet regularly to hammer out policy decisions that are then passed to the full Cabinet for approval.
By the time the proposals reach the Cabinet there is little scope left to debate them, and in any case they usually have the prime minister's endorsement. Poll-tax controversy
This was the case four years ago when Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister, asked her Cabinet to approve a new local government tax which came to be known as the poll tax. The details had been worked out in ad hoc committees, and Mrs. Thatcher demanded immediate Cabinet endorsement, despite the misgivings of several of her ministers.
Tony Benn, a former Labour Cabinet minister and long-time campaigner for open government, said the Cabinet committees too often take the effective decisions which are then rubber-stamped by Cabinet.
Already however it is becoming clear that there are limits to how much the public will be allowed to know about the work of Cabinet committees. Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet secretary, is understood to have advised Major not to reveal when the committees are scheduled to meet in case details of their deliberations reach the media.
An official said: "If the media know when and where the meetings are to be held, and who is attending, they will want to know what happened."