Releasing the names of public officials

No more shadowy figures
Wednesday March 16, 2005
The Guardian

The Freedom of Information Act is pressing authorities to reveal the names of staff. In Seattle they call it accountability. Heather Brooke asks if we should follow suit

Not many people would choose telephoning a call centre over speaking to a named individual, yet many public authorities continue to plough money into centralised call centres rather than taking the simple step of making their staff directories publicly available.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is putting pressure on authorities to reveal the names of public sector staff who, until now, have been hidden behind faceless titles such as waste management team or head of environmental health.

Councils, universities and quangos are getting dozens of requests for staff directories. The Ministry of Defence has had a request from the Guardian for staff names. So far the MoD is refusing to release the information and the newspaper is appealing, saying the MoD already gives its staff directory to arms traders: the public, who provide the department’s funding, have a right to see it, too.

In Seattle, by contrast, any member of the public can search the city’s website to find the name, direct telephone number and email of all public employees. Not only can residents find out who is in charge of various departments, they can drill down to see who is collecting their rubbish, who sweeps the street, who is enforcing dog control ordinances or even filling potholes.

“We call that accountability,” says Dewey Potter, of Seattle’s parks and recreation department. “It would be a disservice to the public not to give out those names. We’re public employees. We work for the public and the public are our boss. They have a right to know who we are and what we do.”

It’s a philosophy shared by most US public employees. Not only are directories made available, photographs of senior staff and elected officials are hung in public areas. School district offices (the equivalent to local education authorities) are decorated with smiling faces of the school superintendent and board members. Even at the Miami-Dade International Airport, you’ll find a full-colour poster showing the region’s county commissioners.

Increasingly, public employees in the UK are coming out of the shadows. Since January 1, 2005, public authorities have had a legal obligation to give information to the public. Some of the questions being asked of public authorities are: “Who are you people? What do you do? And how can I contact you?”

A trawl of public authority websites shows wide variation in the answers being given – from a fear of naming anybody (even the chief executive) to online databases searchable by name or department that show job descriptions, direct telephone numbers and email.

The biggest obstacle to direct accountability is the Data Protection Act 1998, which the Court of Appeal has called “a cumbersome and inelegant piece of legislation”.

Public authorities have sought advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office, the regulator of both the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Acts. Yet the commissioner’s office refuses to say whether or not staff directories should be disclosed. “The public authority has to make that decision itself based on the data protection principals,” said a spokesman. Yet these principals are vague and hinge on subjective concepts such as what is “fair” and what is “personal”.

A name is obviously personal, but not all personal information is exempt. It all comes down to fairness. Is it fair that a public employee’s name be made public? There is an argument that such disclosure is fair because public employees work for, and are paid by, the public.

A way around the problem is to publish the information, but give staff an option to be ex-directory. This was the approach taken by South Bank university in London when it set up its online staff directory five years ago. Originally five staff opted to be ex-directory, “but once they saw how useful it was they changed their minds,” says Sally Justice, who set up the resource. “We could not live without it now.”

Other authorities are adamant that they will not publish such information. The London borough of Barking and Dagenham has refused an FOIA request for its staff directory.

“Publishing our directory would cause untold confusion,” says Peter Mead, the borough’s corporate information management officer. “We have put a lot of money into our call centre, so we don’t want members of the public calling up employees directly.”

Of course, employees cannot work efficiently with constant interruptions from the public. But this assumes a remarkable level of civic activism. Even in the US, back office employees are rarely called by the public.

Another common reason for refusing to disclose staff names is concern they will be the target of violence. Seattle’s Dewey Potter has no such fear, even in a country where residents can, and do, bear arms. “I’ve worked for the city of Seattle for 27 years and in all that time I’ve never heard of an incident where any of our employees was threatened or harmed,” she says. “The closest I came was a very fiery meeting where plain clothes police had to escort a member of the public from the premises.”

Undoubtedly, violence is a fact of life for British public employees. But a solution may be to examine why an authority antagonises large sections of its population. Instead of frustrating the public even more by refusing to be directly accountable, public authorities could do more to train staff in conflict resolution and customer service. The rest of us should be allowed to know who is working for us.

Useful links
South Bank university staff directory
Information Commissioner’s guidance on the release of personal information

5 Responses to “Releasing the names of public officials”

  1. N Louis says:

    As there are issues between FOI and Data Protection on the naming of officials which has yet to be resolved. The Department of Constitutional Affairs have sent out FOI Handling Guidance to all central government departments, advising that the names of officials, including any personal data, should be redacted (for example, in emails etc) if it’s not integral to the information requested. So the anonymisation of official’s names is the now the norm unless knowing who dealt with a communication is integral to the information.

  2. Vaci says:

    The Information Commissioner is the independent official appointed to oversee both the FOI and the Data Protection Acts, and is surely best placed to resolve conflicts between the two Acts.

    The advice issued by the Commissioner clearly indicates that the names and job titles of public officials can be published without falling foul of the Data Protection Act: “…information which is about someone acting in an official or work capacity should normally be provided on request…”

    I’ve read nothing in the guidance issued by the DCA (http://www.dca.gov.uk/foi/guidance) that suggests that names of public officials should be redacted as a matter of course.

  3. N Louis says:

    The original guidance issued by the DCA (http://www.dca.gov.uk/foi/guidance) doesn’t suggest that names of public officials should be redacted as a matter of course.

    But further FOI handling guidance sent out more recently by the DCA as the central clearing house for the civil service on FOI matters, advises that the names of officials, including their personal data, should be redacted if it’s not integral to the information requested. This is of course until the issues between FOI and Data Protection Acts on the naming of officials is resolved, and a decision is made either way.

    Although the Information Commissioner is the independent official appointed to oversee both the FOI and the Data Protection Acts. It remains to be seen if this particular conflict is going to be put to him for a resolution.

  4. Tony Brooke says:

    With increasing use of third party service companies to do government work, shouldn’t the same rules of public transparency be applied to them as a condition of doing such work.(Or is this already the case?)
    Surely we have an even greater need for accountability and public scrutiny when profit rather than public service is the driver?

  5. vaci says:

    I believe that FOI does indeed apply to work done by private companies on behalf of government bodies – but only to that work. It doesn’t expose the entire company’s business to FOI disclosure.

    I actually think that profit is an excellent driver for good practice, efficiency and quality of service. At least a company that fails to deliver those benefits will suffer a fall in profit. Public servants have no such motivation as their failures are absolved by the public purse!

Leave a Reply