Tag Archive for civil servants

FOI: A Civil Servant Writes

FOI Man brings you a guest post from a civil servant who tells us how FOI is seen inside a central government department

This blog claims to bring you an inside view of the Freedom of Information Act, so I’m always glad to bring you a new perspective on the Act from the people who are subject to it. The people who answer FOI requests aren’t always the FOI Officers – often requests are delegated to staff in departments. This week I’m bringing you a guest post that has been sent to me by a civil servant. For obvious reasons they wish to remain anonymous.

The post-legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act has focused attention recently on the future of FOI. In amongst the arguments, we have heard a fair bit about how the attitude of the civil service is affecting its implementation. As a civil servant myself working in a Whitehall department, I wanted to add my voice to this debate. I’m grateful to FOIMan for giving me the opportunity to guest-post here, but I hope you’ll understand if I remain anonymous – civil servants don’t like the limelight. I should also say that I am only speaking from my own experience in one corner of one department, and wouldn’t dream of trying to generalise any of this across Whitehall as a whole. It goes without saying that these are my own views and nothing to do with my employer.

We have heard from the former head of the civil service, Lord Gus O’Donnell, that he feels FOI has had a ‘chilling effect’ on policy making. He’s the latest in a long line of former top mandarins to say similar things. However, this attitude is not confined to those in charge. I would guess that many of my colleagues would say they have similar reservations.

Let me say that I’m right behind FOI. I think it’s vital for us all to be able to ask questions of those running the country on our behalf, and for those questions to be answered. It’s part of a modern democracy; we have the freedom to choose our leaders and part of that is that they are accountable to us. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to ask questions.

Unfortunately on the face of it some of my colleagues don’t seem to agree. They curse FOI, they grumble about having to deal with it, and think it’s a waste of time and effort. Why are people asking for this? What on earth can they possibly want it for? All they’re going to do is use it to cause trouble for us, to make us look bad.

I think this attitude is misplaced. I can recall few, if any, FOI responses in my small corner of the Whitehall world that have led to us looking bad, or any type of genuine scandal along the lines of MPs’ expenses. Mostly, our requests come from members of the public wanting information to help them challenge their local council. We admit to ourselves that councils sometimes get it wrong, and that it would be great if they did it right. So why aren’t we behind the use of FOI as a tool to help achieve that?

We are a helpful department – even before FOI we were, and still are, generally willing to give people what they want just for the asking. I routinely get surprised members of the public on the phone amazed that they actually got through to a person who knew something, rather than a call centre. And we send out a lot of free literature to people. So why do we get so worked up when a similar request for information is labelled as an FOI?

I think a lot of the problem is the way that FOI is administered, rather than the principle of open access or the Act itself. We have a central team of FOI officers, but they act as a postbox, and advise if you get stuck. The actual business of collating information and responding to requests is down to individual policy teams. Most of the people dealing with FOI are therefore not specialists, and are doing this in addition to many other things, all part of their role. We’ve had some internal training on FOI, and make good use of advice from the departmental intranet, but by and large we’re on our own. Trying to navigate your way through exemptions, public interest tests and deadlines can feel like a minefield if you’re not sure of yourself. There’s also a complicated system for logging and monitoring requests, and for clearing draft responses. No wonder we get frustrated.

The preparation we were given in the run-up to the introduction of FOI in 2005 also did not inspire us to believe in the brave new world that was on the way. I distinctly remember the training being along the lines of putting the fear of GO’D into us if we didn’t comply with all of these new processes and requirements (please excuse the civil service humour there). It wasn’t sold as a chance to fundamentally change the way we worked, to engage better with our stakeholders, to improve our image, and so on. Most of our preparation focused on making sure our records were in order, including getting rid of all those useless emails we no longer needed (and before you all start writing stories about ‘civil servants deliberately delete data to avoid FOI’ I’m only talking about good housekeeping here. No-one needs 314 emails telling them that the weekly briefing will be held at 12 and to bring your own biscuits).

I don’t think we help ourselves sometimes, though. There are plenty of exemptions available to us to protect what really can’t be disclosed, but I also don’t think we make enough use of the cost limit and the exemptions for vexatious and repeated requests. And we could pro-actively publish a lot more – although we are getting a lot better at that. Resources play a part here – digitising the records of our most frequently requested material so it can be put on our website is a huge job, and not that high up on anyone’s priority list.

I have to say that although the Constitution Unit didn’t find much evidence of a chilling effect on policy making, on a day-to-day level I fear it may be having an impact. Routinely people half-joke about not writing things down ‘in case it’s FOI-d’.’

But if we are sure of our work, and our thinking and policies, then what is the problem with recording that and letting others see it? Maybe in one sense it’s time to go back to the old school, the pre-email days of memos written dispassionately with an eye to posterity and the 25-year review of the files, carefully drafted and weighing up both positive and negative. When, unlike with email, it wasn’t practical to cc everyone in and communicate your every thought, because the typing pool’s time was precious. Only what was important got recorded.

Recently I have spent some time digging through old files trying to trace the evolution of a policy. The files were incomplete – nothing to do with FOI, as it pre-dated that by about 20 years, but because people hadn’t been good at record keeping. If that is compounded by the irrational fear of disclosure leading to things not being written down, then we will lose an awful lot of detailed and important knowledge. In turn, this means future civil servants will have to keep reinventing the wheel as they won’t be able to look back on previous work and get a complete picture.

But maybe it’s not as bad as I fear. In spite of all the grumbling, we still accept that FOI is here to stay and do our best to comply. We still all start with the assumption that we’re going to disclose as much as we can, and don’t go looking for excuses not to.

So maybe all the grumbling is just the traditional civil servant’s way of letting off steam. Maybe, as younger officials come through the ranks and the dinosaurs die off, FOI will become embedded in our culture and be something that just happens. We can but hope.

Keeping secrets secret

The Daily Telegraph has highlighted the tricky issue of redaction. FOI Man reflects on the perhaps surprising difficulties of blanking out a bit of text.

Today’s Daily Telegraph features a story about redaction. And for a change, this is not a story complaining about public authorities redacting too much, but about them failing to do so properly.

The Departments for Health and Communities and Local Government, and the Ministry of Defence, are all alleged to have disclosed and published documents containing redactions. But unfortunately, it appears that the redactions were poorly done, and as a result, the material that should have remained secret can be read by requesters and others with very little effort on their part.

Redaction, for those who don’t speak FOI, is the term used to describe blanking out information in documents. It happens when public authorities are disclosing documents but there are particular words or passages that contain sensitive information and are therefore exempt. Rather than refusing to provide the whole document, public authorities will blank out the relevant sections.

It is a difficult process from start to finish. First of all, if the document (or documents) is very long, it can be time consuming (and this time often can’t be included in estimates of the cost). Secondly, as the Telegraph has highlighted, the practicalities of how to redact are not straightforward.

The Telegraph gives two examples of how redaction can go wrong. In the first, it appears that the Civil Servant responsible thought they had successfully blanked out the relevant sections using available software, but when the journalist studied the documents, it was a simple matter to highlight the relevant sections to see what had been supposedly hidden. In the second, rather more prosaic (and familiar) example, the text had been blanked out using a black marker pen, but when the document was held up against the light, again the information was magically revealed.

Another common difficulty occurs with Track Changes™ or similar functionality in office software (or more accurately, with staff understanding how it works). In a previous job, we  purchased redaction software in an attempt to overcome these issues, only to find that it didn’t work properly (it tended to blank out more than the section you wanted to cover up).

In the end, less technical solutions tend to be the most effective. The standard one is to use a black marker pen to cover the relevant words, then photocopy the pages, possibly use the pen again on the photocopy, then photocopy the pages again, and so on until you (and usually half a dozen colleagues interrupted to double check it for you) are satisfied that the words or passage can’t be read.

My favoured solution, sometimes complemented by the one above, is to use cut up bits of Post-It ™ note or paper that can be otherwise secured, and place them over the relevant sections before photocopying the pages (taking care not to dislodge said bits of paper en route to the photocopier). You can even indicate the relevant exemptions on the paper covering each section. This is effective, and has the added benefit of making your desk look like the aftermath of a Blue Peter craft session. “And here’s a document I prepared earlier…”

So I feel for my colleagues in central Government. They will no doubt want to read up about redaction, so if they and you want to know more, both the Information Commissioner and the National Archives publish useful guidance for public authorities.

If you’re waiting for my post on exemptions and the public interest test, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about it. I’ve just extended the deadline(!) and hope to publish it later this week.

Reflections on writing a public sector blog

It’s Christmas, and every blogger worth their salt is reviewing the year, or rewriting the lyrics to Christmas Carols. Well, I don’t need to because they’ve already done it better than I ever could! Instead, here are my reflections on my first three months as a blogger.

When I started this blog back at the end of September, I wanted to give a new perspective on FOI – “from the inside”. But not just on FOI, if I’m honest. I also wanted to get across what it was like working in the public sector. Most public sector workers are accustomed to the media take on their activities. And politicians on all sides find it all too easy to blame us when things go wrong (and twist things when they go right if it suits them), and the current political situation has not exactly helped that. I wanted to find a new way to communicate what I really thought, and what the truth behind FOI stories really was.

It may seem odd, but only after I’d started my blog did I start to read other blogs covering issues beyond FOI. Twitter has helped widen my reading. And what have I found? I’m not on my own. There are hundreds of public sector workers blogging about their activities, all with the same motivation – to reach out directly to the public they serve and give a more even handed view of their work.

Through these blogs I have read about civil servants giving up their weekends to improve the accessibility of government data. Local Government workers have exhorted their fellows to go the extra mile in helping the public. And all of this in the face of often unfair media coverage, lacking in context, and the ever present threat of redundancy hanging over their heads.

FOI is the main subject of this blog, but I do want to tackle openness in general, hence the posts on WikiLeaks and Open Government Data Disclosures. And I think that these blogs from public servants (modesty forbids me from including my own) are becoming an important strand in this movement. If Government is serious about engaging with the public and making public services work better, it should avoid discouraging this activity, even if it can’t bring itself to encourage it. So there will be more in the coming year from me on blogging in the public sector.

Another surprise to me is how ready the public (for want of a better word for all those who read and comment on our blogs) is to engage with those of us who feel motivated to put our thoughts online. I have to admit to being nervous as to the comments that I might attract when I started out. But this has not proved to be a problem (save for the inevitable spammers which I spend some time everyday blocking). Comments from all quarters have been largely constructive even if I haven’t always agreed, and have on many occasions helped to shape my own opinions.

And writing the blog and getting comments is challenging my own preconceptions. Last week a volunteer from WhatDoTheyKnow argued that I should have used an exemption when I was reluctant to do so. David Higgerson will be pleased to hear that I am now less cynical about journalists than perhaps I once was thanks to a number of his posts and comments. I’d like to think that that’s because the blog is doing its job – breaking down the barriers between me and the people who make requests – but I think it’s probably a little early to claim that victory.

Through the blog and Twitter, I’ve reached a number of campaigners on various issues. One of them has contacted me recently and asked me to write a brief guide to making responsible FOI requests for their site. What I’ve agreed to do is to write a guide but make it available here so that anyone who wants to can use it. That’s great, isn’t it? That I can work with people who want to make requests to make the process more effective and less confrontational. The possibilities that social networking is opening up are only beginning to become clear to me.

Thank you to all of you that have read this blog in the last three months, and especially if you’ve commented. I hope you’ve found it interesting, and that you continue to do so in the coming year. I’m certainly looking forward to pulling my cloak, mask and lycra leggings back on in the new year, but in the meantime, have a wonderful Christmas and see you back here in 2011!

Open Data? Context is Key

Today the Government has disclosed masses of data about payments made by central Government since the election. Hard to criticise really – this is good news, especially if you believe in openness.

But already I note – and even in the generally pro-public service press – the immediate reporting and analysis of this data is falling into the bad habits that have sometimes characterised reporting of FOI stories in the media. The Guardian report this morning (and the Guardian was given advance sight of the data) described:

“the lingering waste in the government machine, with civil servants sent on chocolate-themed awaydays, training for civil servants in how to have “difficult conversations”, and nightclubs rented for official meetings. Downing Street spent £55,000 renovating David Cameron’s offices after his election.”

Of course, “chocolate-themed awaydays” sounds bad, but then so did the stories of Audit Commission staff going to the races, and that turned out to have been unfairly distorted once anyone bothered to ask the Head of the Audit Commission about it. Isn’t it a good thing if Civil Servants, who undoubtedly are having a great deal of “difficult conversations” at the moment, receive training in how to get the most out of those conversations? And when we’re told the cost, are we given any context – how many civil servants were being trained? If it costs £20,000, that’s not really that bad if 40 or 50 staff had one or two days’ training. And if an office in a heavily used and pretty old building needs £55,000 worth of renovation work, isn’t it important to know when it was last refurbished before judging if it is “lingering waste”?

I’m not saying that these details shouldn’t be scrutinised, but if you’re going to report it with an arched eyebrow, in words dripping with insinuation, shouldn’t you first be sure of the context of the spending? Shouldn’t you report that alongside the figures?

Yesterday, journalist David Higgerson wrote about the Prime Minister’s statement about Greater Manchester Police in a blog entry for the Liverpool Daily Post. He made exactly this point, adding:

“maybe Cameron should stop stigmatising many thousands of hard-working people to score cheap political points. Context is key here, and Cameron, as in opposition, is having a struggle with context once again.”

It’s not just David Cameron who has been at fault here, but also other politicians and journalists who should know better. It’s not truly Open Government if we’re just thrown batches of figures and cheap shots at the public sector (and by the way, that’s part of the context too – how does public sector spending and practice compare to equivalent spending and practice in the private sector?).

There will be a brief break in transmissions from FOI Man for the next week. Thanks again for reading, contributing comments and emailing me barmy FOI requests. It really is appreciated, and I’ll look forward to resuming normal service again in a week or so’s time.

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.