Tag Archives: police

The slow drain of accountability in watchdog reporting

David Higgerson writes about some depressing recent developments – and equally depressing wider trends – around the lack of transparency in public office and public spending. It’s worth reading:

“The reason this is so important now is because we are on the cusp of another wave of political restructuring. Devolution is on its way to Greater Manchester, and to other major city regions too. Whether you believe this is a good thing or not, there is hopefully no denying that with such major power moves there has to also be a cast-iron guarantee that those making decisions will be accountable.”

And here’s the background:

Advertisements

Avon and Somerset Police calculate an “average” cost for an FOI request which is higher than the maximum

£540 is claimed - but £450 is the maximum

Background image by Paul Townsend

While I’m on the subject of Freedom of Information, here’s an odd story in the recent onslaught of anti-FOI press releases, from Avon and Somerset Police.

The police force is just one of many public bodies recently to moan about “bizarre and comical” FOI requests*. They claim that Freedom Of Information cost the body over half a million pounds last year. But can we trust their calculations?

Here’s how they say they arrived at their figure of £514,620:

"The cost of answering requests is calculated on a basis of £30 per hour , with an average time of 18 hours per request."

“The cost of answering requests is calculated on a basis of £30 per hour , with an average time of 18 hours per request.”

That’s an average cost of £540.

Now, here’s the guidance on costs from the Information Commissioner:

“The cost limit for complying with a request or a linked series of requests from the same person or group is set at £450 for [non central] public authorities.”

So somehow Avon and Somerset have arrived at an average cost per request which is higher than the maximum cost for FOI requests.

How? Well, firstly the 18 hours “average” they mention is actually the maximum time that can be spent on an FOI request. So either every requester is somehow managing to hit that magical maximum, or they cannot calculate an average.

Worse, the £30 cost per hour is higher than they are supposed to charge.

According to the Ministry of Justice:

“£25 is the standard hourly rate that all authorities must use to calculate the staff costs of answering requests.”

Perhaps we need an FOI request to find out why Avon and Somerset Police are charging so much to answer FOI requests, and the calculations they used to arrive at an ‘average’?

UPDATE: It seems someone did exactly that:

avon somerset police foi story

*Apparently it’s “bizarre and comical” to ask how many police officers failed a physical. The answer is one in ten.

Gagging orders old and new

The Minister giveth, and the Minister taketh away. Last week health secretary Jeremy Hunt ‘banned‘ gagging clauses in NHS contracts – even though they’d already been banned in 1999.

A week later his equivalent in the Ministry of Justice Chris Grayling was issuing a rather less generous directive, gagging probation officers from making any comments “in criticism or designed to undermine the justice secretary’s policy or actions”.

And in the police force Operation Elveden ‘crossed a Rubicon‘ as it expanded its scope to include police officers who had leaked information without payment – in other words, speaking to a journalist. (Outside of the operation itself, officers who have spoken to journalists were reported to have found themselves subject to disciplinary investigation, and two suspended.)

Tomorrow I chair a panel on whistleblowing, social media and accountability at an event on reporting the new health system. The last year has seen a raft of guidance on using social media in the NHS, including documents from NHS Employers and from the Royal College of General Practitioners to name just two. These are welcome – but I am sceptical they will have any more impact than that 1999 law.

More broadly, I am concerned about the ability to have an open public debate when sources feel they cannot express any opinion that is ‘off-message’, and journalists cannot protect their sources.

Doubtless a lack of trust in journalists is a factor, but also the desire for control exercised by PR departments and spin doctors documented by Heather Brooke. I know of one NHS trust, for example, which emailed all employees banning them from commenting publicly on a hospital docusoap.

PR is one thing, but many public sector employees are feeling co-opted into a media management campaign they neither support nor believe to be in the best interests of public health, justice, safety, or service.

The NHS is just the most visible example of how public institutions can confuse their own interest with the public interest. Disciplinary policies can set this out particularly barely. This one from United Lincolnshire Hospitals gives examples of “gross misconduct” that include:

“using social networking sites or similar, where employees in their own time using personal computer equipment can be identified as NHS employees and make comments relating to the Trust or the wider NHS which bring the Trust into disrepute.”

You hear the same conflation of institutional interest with pubic interest in statements from the Ministry of Justice:

“If you associate yourself with London Probation Trust through the publication of details about your role as an employee, or Board member, you must not make or endorse any postings or tweet that may bring LPT, the secretary of state for justice or officials acting on his behalf into disrepute.”

Even retweeting such sentiments from others would, apparently, be taken as “incitement or approval” and lead to possible disciplinary action.

Defenders argue that “There are channels for people to express their views”. Presumably a quiet corner of a blacked-out room. The experiences of health workers and whistleblowers are not promising in this regard.

We are living through the first flushes of a new form of public life where the newfound ability to distribute information is tempered by the growing awareness that anything we say (or the connections we make even in private) may be used against us.

As institutions seek to control their employees’ social expression, journalists will have to work harder to establish trust, to protect sources, and establish private channels of communication. A 1999 West Wing episode saw it coming:

A guest post on dealing with whistleblowers written by a Staffordshire whistleblower is here on Help Me Investigate.

Review: Heather Brooke – The Silent State

The Silent State

In the week that a general election is called, Heather Brooke’s latest book couldn’t have been better timed. The Silent State is a staggeringly ambitious piece of work that pierces through the fog of the UK’s bureaucracies of power to show how they work, what is being hidden, and the inconsistencies underlying the way public money is spent.

Like her previous book, Your Right To Know, Brooke structures the book into chapters looking at different parts of the power system in the UK – making it a particularly usable reference work when you want to get your head around a particular aspect of our political systems.

Chapter by chapter

Chapter 1 lists the various databases that have been created to maintain information on citizens – paying particular focus to the little-publicised rack of databases holding subjective data on children. The story of how an old unpopular policy was rebranded to ride into existence on the back of the Victoria Climbie bandwagon is particularly illustrative of government’s hunger for data for data’s sake.

Picking up that thread further, Chapter 2 explores how much public money is spent on PR and how public servants are increasingly prevented from speaking directly to the media. It’s this trend which made The Times’ outing of police blogger Nightjack particularly loathsome and why we need to ensure we fight hard to protect those who provide an insight into their work on the ground.

Chapter 3 looks at how the misuse of statistics led to the independence of the head of the Office of National Statistics – but not the staff that he manages – and how the statistics given to the media can differ quite significantly to those provided when requested by a Select Committee (the lesson being that these can be useful sources to check). It’s a key chapter for anyone interested in the future of public data and data journalism.

Bureaucracy itself is the subject of the fourth chapter. Most of this is a plea for good bureaucracy and the end of unnamed sources, but there is still space for illustrative and useful anecdotes about acquiring information from the Ministry of Defence.

And in Chapter 5 we get a potted history of MySociety’s struggle to make politicians accountable for their votes, and an overview of how data gathered with public money – from The Royal Mail’s postcodes to Ordnance Survey – is sold back to the public at a monopolistic premium.

The justice system and the police are scrutinised in the 6th and 7th chapters – from the twisted logic that decreed audio recordings are more unreliable than written records to the criminalisation of complaint.

Then finally we end with a personal story in Chapter 8: a reflection on the MPs’ expenses saga that Brooke is best known for. You can understand the publishers – and indeed, many readers – wanting to read the story first-hand, but it’s also the least informative of all the chapters for journalists (which is a credit to all that Brooke has achieved on that front in wider society).

With a final ‘manifesto’ section Brooke summarises the main demands running across the book and leaves you ready to storm every institution in this country demanding change. It’s an experience reminiscent of finishing Franz Kafka’s The Trial – we have just been taken on a tour through the faceless, logic-deprived halls of power. And it’s a disconcerting, disorientating feeling.

Journalism 2.0

But this is not fiction. It is great journalism. And the victims caught in expensive paper trails and logical dead ends are real people.

Because although the book is designed to be dipped in as a reference work, it is also written as an eminently readable page-turner – indeed, the page-turning gets faster as the reader gets angrier. Throughout, Brooke illustrates her findings with anecdotes that not only put a human face on the victims of bureaucracy, but also pass on the valuable experience of those who have managed to get results.

For that reason, the book is not a pessimistic or sensationalist piece of writing. There is hope – and the likes of Brooke, and MySociety, and others in this book are testament to the fact that this can be changed.

The Silent State is journalism 2.0 at its best – not just exposing injustice and waste, but providing a platform for others to hold power to account. It’s not content for content’s sake, but a tool. I strongly recommend not just buying it – but using it. Because there’s some serious work to be done.