Is it always right to disclose public servants’ details?

Our friendly minister Francis is back again (that’s a scary sentence to anyone who read or saw House of Cards and its sequels). This time Mr Maude is announcing the publication of charts for each government department naming senior civil servants and giving their salaries. We’ll gloss over the fact that much of this has been available for some time if you could be bothered to look, and that the charts are far from complete.

Personally, I’m relaxed about my contact details and even pay grade being disclosed. I think being an FOI Officer and not being open to that prospect would be even more ironic than writing a blog about FOI anonymously. But I can understand colleagues who feel uneasy about their details being disclosed. It is easy to imagine some very good reasons why individuals may not wish to be found via an authority’s website – perhaps they have been the victim of stalking, or are trying to leave behind a love affair that went badly wrong. But some people just feel very strongly that they are entitled to some privacy, and shouldn’t be deprived of that just because they accepted a job with an organisation that happens to be in the public sector.

There are practical reasons why in some cases it just isn’t appropriate in my view to publish contact details for officials. Why, for instance, should the names and contact numbers of doctors or pharmacists in hospitals be easily available to anyone who asks? Surely they have better things to do than spend their time dealing with drug company reps who have obtained their contact details through FOI. My view is that FOI Officers have to consider the context that they work in, and that the benefits of openness should be balanced against the actual and potential inconvenience that could result. Is openness for its own sake really appropriate in every case?

Of course it is important that those members of staff that deal directly with the public are identified, and that those responsible for the most important and expensive decisions are accountable. And equally, it is important that there is openness about expenditure. But often those needs can be met by means other than naming specific members of staff and publishing their individual salaries.

Another concern public employees have when it comes to salaries is that there is little context provided when these details are reported. Not least because the private sector isn’t subject to the same demands of openness. It’s all very well knowing that someone earns £47,000, but what would someone in that position earn in the private sector? That’s generally not printed alongside newspaper reports and government press releases disclosing public sector salaries. This point was made much more eloquently in a great article I read this week by Chris Blackhurst of the London Evening Standard.

I often find myself wondering when requesters criticise public officials for reticence in these areas how keen they would be for information about them to be disclosed in the same detail. (And yes, you can argue that there is added justification through the expenditure of public money, but when it comes down to it, public servants are employees just like anyone else with a job. Who employs you doesn’t change how you feel about your own privacy).

I’m absolutely not against publishing names, contact details and even salaries where it is appropriate. But I just want to set out why it’s not always as straightforward as those making FOI requests or demanding publication of officials’ details might believe. Beyond the moral and practical issues raised above, there are conflicting legal requirements (which I’m planning to come back to at a later date).

I realised whilst drafting this post that I have a lot to say about this, so I will come back to this subject very soon. Is it right for all public officials to be named, and for their salaries to be published? Or are there boundaries? Should there be different approaches for different parts of the public sector? As ever, I’m interested to hear your views through commenting here or via Twitter. And if you enjoy this blog, please do tell others about it.

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