Tag Archive for employees

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.