Read the story, then count to ten…

When you’re a public employee, even one who sees themselves as progressive and enlightened, it’s easy to reject media criticism of public sector practices as misguided and ill-informed. But maybe we need to keep an open mind.

Confession time. I sometimes get really annoyed with journalists’ stories about Freedom of Information. And their comments on Twitter.  I know that colleagues in the public sector, and even other FOI Officers, will be familiar with that feeling.

It’s the hyperbole that sometimes appals. Other times it’s the lack of understanding of how government (at all levels) works. Quite a lot of the time its just an instinctive reaction to seeing colleagues (in the loosest sense – most of the time I don’t even know the people being talked about) criticised in print, apparently just for doing their job.

Heather Brooke revels in her reputation as a thorn in the side of the public sector on FOI and transparency. She has consistently argued that more details of public employees should be made public. Like many other FOI Officers, I’m responsible for Data Protection compliance in my organisation. I’ve made the point here previously that I think there are fundamental differences in the approach to personal data and privacy taken in Heather’s native US and here in the UK. I know many colleagues in my own organisation and elsewhere who would feel very uncomfortable with their details being made public. There are plenty of employees in private sector organisations (including media corporations) that would feel similarly. I resent the characterisation of all public employees as sinister power-hungry figures intent on creating and/or maintaining a big brother state under a shroud of secrecy. All of these objections and more boil in the cauldron of my mind as I read Heather’s latest criticism, often accompanied by a thin wisp of steam rising from my scalp.

But fundamentally, she’s doing her job. If I try to see past my instinctive reactions, I can see that she’s got a point – there are circumstances where more transparency about who is doing what would be beneficial. And a lot of my discomfort is less about privacy and more about the fear of my colleagues’ reactions.

Last week I read a story (possibly apocryphal) in a blog post about a Minister having to ask a friendly MP to make an FOI request to obtain information from his own department. The argument he’d been given was that the papers belonged to the previous administration so he couldn’t see them. Whilst the journalist was making the point that this was ridiculous, the public servant in me was dying to respond. I wanted to point out that there were good reasons for this. It’s about ensuring that the civil service is seen as impartial. There’s a convention in government that you don’t let Ministers of a new government see the papers of the previous administration.

But, let’s pause a second. If the papers could be disclosed under FOI, it patently is ridiculous. And even if the full facts would have justified how the situation was handled, of course it looks stupid to the outside world. Journalists can’t be expected to understand the inner workings of Whitehall, any more than I can be expected to understand the functioning of a national news outlet. And more than that. The whole point of FOI and moves to transparency in our public sector is to challenge the status quo. Conventions that have stood for centuries in some cases absolutely should be scrutinised to see if they are consistent with the new way of working.

For instance, I have issues with the convention of collective responsibility being trotted out religiously in defence of withholding Cabinet Minutes. And for that matter with the convention that protects the impartiality of the Monarch and the Heir being given as an excuse for not disclosing correspondence with the Prince of Wales. Surely the best way to maintain the impartiality of members of the Royal Family is for them to be impartial. These conventions often seem like they put the cart before the proverbial horse – surely we should be looking at whether actual harm will be caused to good government, individuals or third parties when considering FOIs, not whether harm will be caused to a convention (which in itself was designed to protect those things in an age before FOI existed).

That’s not to say that there aren’t good reasons at times for information to be withheld. And journalists, along with other people who make requests, are never going to be happy when information is withheld. But I think it’s important that those of us trying to change the culture in the public sector pause a moment when our reaction is to reject criticism. Many of us have been working in the public sector for years. It’s easy to assume that the way things are done is the way they should be done. It ain’t necessarily so.

And when journalists and others get it wrong, or they just don’t understand why decisions have been made, maybe we need to be more open about the process and the reasoning. This blog is one reaction to that – I want people who make requests to understand why FOI works the way it does. That won’t stop critical stories about FOI handling. But it’s another dimension to the openness agenda that we’re all trying (or should be trying) to push within the wider public sector.

So I’m going to keep a fire extinguisher to hand and put out the fires of my indignation next time I react angrily to media criticism. Openness will apply to my mind as well as my job. I will count to ten before I dismiss a journalist’s latest story as “Balderdash” or something stronger. Mrs FOIMan, who knows me better than most, reading this over my shoulder, comments “Good luck with that.”

No comments

  1. S Jones says:

    Wow, nice can of worms you opened there …

    I’m commenting in a personal capacity, not only coloured by my status as an (apparently EVIL) public sector employee, but also as a voter and a taxpayer (I think many policiticians would do well to remember the last two when courting popularity by having a go at public sector administration). This post is not meant to come across as defensive – (“we’ve always done it this way” is to me as a red rag to a bull) – but as always, there are two sides to the story.

    I’ve only been in the public sector for a short while, and would agree that there is a heck of a lot that could be improved.

    On the ‘bad public sector’ side, there is a lack of consistency in presentation of online information which can make comparisons difficult – I abhor my local authority’s website because it is so difficult to find *anything* – and finding stuff out is my job!

    Many public sector organisations of all descriptions could make presentation etc more accessible – but I’d hazard a bet that this is far more owing to lack of resource (staff time/money) than an express desire to obfuscate issues or hide information.

    However, on the ‘not our fault’ side – I am going to take issue with FOIman’s “journalists can’t be expected to understand” comment. Surely, as part of their job, a responsible journalist – or an MP/MP’s researcher – *will* try to gain at least a broad brush understanding of an organisation’s role/remit or the major factors affecting big issues before they send out a time-consuming request (even 150 organisations x 10 minutes each to respond “information not held, apply to…” = 25 hours of wasted time = taxpayers’ money – including mine, see para 2).

    I’ve said this before on here, I’ll say it again – a requester picking up the phone to speak to someone about where they can find what they want, or what would be available on request would be a good start in many cases – and although the response from one organisation may not apply to all, I’ll bet it would still give some useful guidance in relation to making a blanket/round robin request to all similar organisations. Having said that, I think many public sector organisations “could do better” on the approachability front (perhaps this is my mostly-outside-public-sector work experience speaking!). I know that our own organisation could do better in some cases on ‘internal knowledge’ of who does what and I’m sure that many others are the same. It’s not always easy to get the right person – so try whoever works in FOI first, we can use telephones too!

    FOI is applicant-blind, but I’m only human, so whilst I can promise that the response would be identical to that which would be made to any other non-identifiable requester, I still cant help reacting with some irritation to reading a request which is clearly from from an MP or MP’s researcher or a journalist that should be directed to another type of organisation – e.g. how much we pay surgeons. (We’re a primary care trust, so we don’t pay them anything. Hospital trusts do.) In my personal opinion an elected MP *should know* at least vaguely how the NHS works, at least sufficiently to find out somewhere/direct their researcher to spend the 5 minutes it would take to find out what kind of NHS organisation would be likely to be able to provide the information required. Same applies to any journalist writing about a health service issue, particularly if making a round-robin request to cover larger/national area.

    Second, in terms of knowing who is in receipt of taxpayers’ money: as a lowly Agenda for Change Band 5 NHS employee, I do not have any strategic decision-making role, nor do I have any authority to ‘sign off’ expenditure. Not even for a stamp if something needs to go out urgently and has missed the postroom deadline. For this reason, I fail to see why qualifications/work history/age of more junior staff should be published online for “anyone” to see or can/should be given out to any random person who asks for it. No responsibility without authority.

    Finally, I think that the media and politicians have to accept some responsibility for less-than-desirable relationships/communications with public sector organisations. Media reporting can be very biassed. Local campaigners, politicians and MPs can be very vocal about a specific issue without also acknowledging that the public body responsible may have other equally valid public interests to consider and that in an environment of ever-decreasing resources, tough decisions have to be made which impact on as few individuals as possible – but will impact on some. On top of this, we appear to have a culture where “someone (individual) has to be to blame” if a mistake is made rather than looking at working practices as a whole.

    Is it any wonder that some in public sector can be (once bitten, twice) shy? I’m not saying it’s right – but I am saying that it will take -both- sides to resolve it.