Tag Archive for WikiLeaks

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!

WikiLeaks – a few thoughts

First, a confession. I’m really not sure what I think about WikiLeaks. Obviously openness is a good thing, but encouraging individuals to risk their jobs and livelihoods to leak information fairly indiscriminately makes me uneasy. I worry that those who see only good in these disclosures are missing the bigger picture; there really are good reasons at times to keep things out of the public arena. It’s always interesting that those who are so keen on unmitigated openness tend to feel very strongly about personal privacy, as if they can’t see that there’s a direct link. But I’m keeping an open mind.

I don’t think I’m alone in my confusion. At the start of the weekend, the Twitterati were attacking WikiLeaks and suggesting that if you wanted real openness, you’d have to go far to beat investigative journalist Heather Brooke. Then it became clear that Heather was working with the Guardian on preparing the WikiLeaks material. Even the Guardian is performing contortional trickery at times to justify its disclosures (not that I’m criticising them, its just interesting to see that they feel they have to justify what they’re doing).

What I do know, in my water, is that this is important. This is the latest in a series of leaks of large scale information from Governments around the world. We’re also seeing increasingly information being disclosed in bulk by Government through choice. All of this is pointing in the direction of a huge sea change in attitudes to how Government should be carried out. Whether it’s right or wrong is almost becoming academic in the tide of disclosures.

FOI Officers, records managers, IT professionals as well as politicians and journalists have to come to grips with this. What are our roles in confronting it? Do we try to stop it or control it (or make the case for it at least)? Should we reinvent ourselves now that we seemingly can’t stem the flow of information? Are we now about ensuring that there is context for the information that will inevitably be seen around the world? I have a lot of questions right now but not a lot of answers.

One thing is for sure, these are interesting times.

Postscript

Just thought I’d post here links to some of the various blogposts about the WikiLeaks disclosures, some of which, David Allen Green and Adrian Henriques (in the BBC Magazine) express my views much better than I have here!

David Allen Green in his New Statesman blog

Adrian Henriques in the BBC Magazine pages

David Higgerson in his journalism blog

For an alternative view, see Heather Brooke in the Guardian

The Guardian’s “private is not the same as secret” contortions

And finally, Simon Jenkins in the Guardian – more contortions, but the last few paragraphs on whether it’s possible to keep electronic communications secure is interesting (and inspired my penultimate paragraph).