Tag Archive for coalition

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.

How Pro-FOI is the Coalition Government?

This week, we’ve heard about Conservative proposals to extend FOI. But apparently, that’s not all. The Lib Dem Minister responsible for FOI has indicated that the extensions may go even further:

“what the coalition has committed itself to is an examination of how the Freedom of Information Act has worked, where it could be extended within its present powers and where it might be extended by primary legislation.” (Source, Campaign for FOI blog)

We’ve seen in recent months several announcements about openness. So is this Government more open than the last? And how long can it last? Yesterday I received a message via Twitter from one of my readers directing me to Sir Humphrey’s thoughts on the matter.

Seriously though, some observations. I think we need to give the new government a chance to show its hand on FOI and openness. There is a difference between choosing to publish all expenditure over £500 say, and having to answer requests made under the general right of access under FOI. It sounds very open to publish information pro-actively (and it is certainly something to be encouraged), but the public body still retains some control. It knows what information will be published and can design its processes and decisions around that.

The important thing about making a Freedom of Information request is that you, the citizen, choose what to ask about. Politicians and their advisors who may happily embrace the concept of open government, as long as they can choose what to be open about, go into the biggest flaps when confronted by an FOI request, exactly because they might have to disclose something that they’d rather not. I know – I’ve seen this happen. So I’ll be interested to see not just how much information the new Government is prepared to make freely available, but how readily they respond to individual requests under FOI. The experience of the Other Taxpayers’ Alliance is not encouraging.

There is, of course, a problem with extending FOI. It’s one of the great myths of FOI that it doesn’t cost anything. The Labour Government countered Conservative arguments (during the passing of the Bill through Parliament) that FOI would be an expensive burden by arguing that public authorities would be expected to deal with FOI requests out of their existing resources. That clearly hasn’t proved to be true, but resources for dealing with FOI requests are limited. Heather Brooke used FOI to compare spending on FOI with spending on public relations by police forces in the UK, and not surprisingly found that there were rather fewer FOI Officers in the UK than Press and Marketing Officers. It’s interesting that the very people who call loudest for cuts to public services are often the very same people that demand their rights (and extensions to their rights) to obtain information from those services.

So, like every public servant in the country, I say to the Government, put your money where your mouth is. If you want more openness, support your FOI Officers. And if you think that by pro-actively publishing information you will cut down on FOI requests, I suggest you take a look at this blog entry about the OpenlyLocal website. One-click FOI requests. I suspect I’ll be coming back to that one…

Personally, I’m a supporter of openness and certainly have no desire to see FOI weakened in any way. But any extension has got to recognise the practicalities – if you’re going to ask public authorities to do more, you can’t then take away resources, and in fact you may have to add to them. You only have to look at the Information Commissioner’s backlog of complaints over the last few years to see how meaningless rights are without the resources in place to deliver and enforce them.

Thanks for your interest this week – well over a thousand hits in week one. Do feel free to comment via the blog or twitter (@foimanuk) on any of the issues I raise here.