Tag Archive for Civil Service

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.

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.”