Are you being served?

by | Mar 8, 2013 | Another bunch of people who will now hate my guts, FOI | 2 comments

Imagine your plane crashed on a desert island. Some tasks would immediately need to be carried out by the survivors. You would need some form of shelter, so anyone with building or carpentry skills could mean the difference between surviving and perishing. Medical skills would be essential to tend the wounded and also to care for new injuries or illnesses that would come about in the hostile environment. To protect people’s health, some rudimentary waste services would be required, if only to ensure that waste did not contaminate any fresh water, or attract pests and even predators. The number of complex tasks required – and the need to marshal resources properly – would inevitably mean that someone would have to be appointed to oversee the rudimentary system in operation. It’s highly likely that – barring an obvious candidate – the group would elect this person. And on the long, cold nights, even someone who could sing or play a guitar plucked from the wreckage of the plane would be highly prized, just to help the long dark hours pass by a little more easily.

I think it might be a while before one of the survivors stood up in one of the group meetings and said, “Look, I know the food and shelter and medical support is great, but I think we need to discuss setting up a newspaper”. A micro version of the public sector would be created long before the Daily Mail was.

Don’t get me wrong. After the apocalypse, Data Protection and FOI consultants are not going to be in high demand, which is why I’m learning the ukulele as a backstop. Meanwhile, the guy on my island who finds the really soft leaves that are a reasonable substitute for toilet paper would be made President for Life. However, a properly functioning society would certainly need journalists before it would have Data Protection and FOI officers, PR experts and people who do whatever it is that Dominic Cummings does at the Department for Education. It is vital that those in authority are held to account, and that decision-making that affects all is properly scrutinised. As soon as my putative island administrator started making decisions about the need for enforced polygamy, someone would start bribing his deputy for information and distributing critical reports on palm leaves.

But there is an attitude held by some (and not all) journalists that I think ignores the importance of the public sector to society, and aggrandises the role of hacks. The view seems to be that journalists are automatically crusaders for truth while public sector employees are all secretive, conspiratorial weasels just because they don’t answer FOI requests as expected. Heather Brooke’s statement that ‘public servants forget who they’re working for’ prompted me to write this but only because it’s the latest example of journalists bashing officials. I disagree with her statement because it’s a universal one about all public servants, rather than the one who disagreed with her on Twitter (a person who was not, as it happens, a public servant). I think talking about ‘public servants’ or ‘officials’ is unfair. Brooke has done this before, but it’s not fair to pick on her because the attitude that all public sector workers are the same is widely held. A lot of press coverage of the public sector – on FOI, strikes, cuts, spending – tends to lump millions of people under one whinging, incompetent banner.

The public sector is the backbone of society. Without it, we would live Hobbesian lives – nasty, brutish and short. If you disagree, collect your own rubbish, resurface the roads anywhere you choose to drive, prevent your neighbour from building a castle in his back garden without help, carry out your own hygiene inspections of restaurants, recycle your own bottles, remove your own diseased kidney, round up the abandoned children in your neighbourhood and look after them, teach your own kids, and hope that we don’t need to help the good folk of Syria any time soon. And with no public sector, there is no need for FOI and no need for those journalists who specialise in using it to criticise public servants.

My first experience as a public servant dealing with a journalist went as follows. A journalist I knew very vaguely rang me up for a “chat”. They asked my view on how councils were dealing with a specific issue, and I gave it. The journalist did not tell me they were writing a story and therefore, I had no idea what kind of story they were writing. Inevitably, it was critical of the approach being taken by councils, and used my quote out of context as a textbook example of the outrage in question. Nobody in my organisation was bothered – the attitude seemed to be that you hadn’t really arrived until a journalist had shat on you. You may think I was naïve but I was really disappointed – the journalist’s MO was discourteous and underhand.

Is it reasonable for me to judge all journalists by this one? Or at the other end of the scale, can I judge them all by the standard set by the sick bastard who dressed as a doctor so that he could photograph Gorden Kaye when he had been badly injured in a car accident? Is it fair for me to generalise about the press based on upskirt photos of celebrities, Daily Express headlines about immigration or News In Briefs? I suspect hacks would hope that I think of Cathy Newman, Peter Oborne or the Daily Mirror’s redoubtable Penman and Sommerlad when thinking of journalists. But if we’re allowed to pick the archetypes that suit us, why can’t I choose Piers Morgan? He’s a journalist. All journalists are like Piers Morgan. Journalists shouldn’t be such revolting tossers. Is this how it works?

Journalism is not a form of civic-minded volunteering. Journalists do a job, just like the rest of us. Some do a responsible and useful job that benefits society, and some piss their lives away filling the space around adverts with rehashed press releases. Heather Brooke wants public servants to remember who they work for. I agree with Heather: public servants work for the public, and not just one small part of it. The public service of answering FOI requests is for everyone, not just journalists. And as an aside, it’s worth remembering who journalists work for. For example, those that work for the national papers work for a small but highly specialised elite including a pornographer, a toff whose predecessors allowed their paper to support Hitler, a ruthless American mogul, a Russian oligarch, a charitable trust that sanctions questionable tax arrangements, and a pair of brothers who like transparency so much, they live on their own private island.

Public servants are not saints – far from it. The people who run public services and work in them are occasionally corrupt, ideological, incompetent and lazy, and there are plenty of excellent journalists who help to root out their failings. But the public sector employs millions of people. A small proportion of them resist FOI requests but most just get on with them like they get on with all of the other thankless tasks that the rest of society gives them. It’s easy and eye-catching to generalise about those few, but it’s not fair to do so. An FOI officer is often overworked, under pressure, and juggling a dozen requests at once. If your request is aimed at the wrong organisation, worded in an overly general or vague way, or covers too much territory, the fact that it is refused isn’t a sign of a conspiracy or an unhelpful FOI officer. It’s at least as likely to be a sign that the applicant didn’t do their research properly, or the evidence they’re after can only be found with a well-aimed shot at the target, rather than a drone strike.

The public sector has not been structured and restructured over many years with the sole purpose of ensuring that information about how it operates sits waiting in an easy-to-digest form, just in case a journo happens to want it. Public servants do three jobs at once, the ground shifts beneath them at a politician’s whim, and new tasks are thrown in without a moment’s notice. At no point does anyone get the chance to say “are we sure we’ve got absolutely complete records in case a journalist wants to ask a question and then say that we’re idiots?”

At the most basic level, hostility toward public servants is self-defeating – in my experience, many journalists understand the procedural elements of FOI less well as the public servants they deride. They’re frustrated because they don’t understand the process well enough. When I was an FOI officer, a journalist working for a national newspaper repeatedly made requests in batches to all councils, and they were so broad and vague, I would find several legitimate reasons to ask for clarification. Most of the time, he had so many requests he didn’t even have the time to respond, but even when he did, he was derisive and critical (despite not having made a valid request) and rarely provided what we needed. What would a normal person do in such circumstances? Be more or less helpful next time? If journalists find obstacles in their way, perhaps a more focussed, better written FOI request might get the information?

FOI does not give journalists speedy boarding. Other members of the public may have made requests before the journalist did, and it makes sense to answer requests in order. Not being able to ask every member of staff to search every file, directory or inbox in 18 or 24 hours is not automatically a sign of incompetence. It’s just as likely to be a sign that the applicant has asked for a shedload of information, possibly more than is sensible or possible within the rules.

It’s too easy to lump every public servant together and accuse them of blocking The Truth from coming out, just as it would be too easy to shout ‘Milly Dowler’s Mobile” at every journalist you meet. Life is more complicated than what can in fit in a headline or in 140 characters. Not all public servants are the same.

I have worked for six public sector organisations and – apart from the last one, which I joined at a very difficult time and never got to grips with – I was proud to work for all of them. That’s right, I was proud to be a public servant. I am glad I was not a journalist. I did a worthwhile job, and most of my colleagues I helped did much more important and socially necessary jobs than me. Whilst my current work as a private sector freelancer is immensely satisfying and allows me to do good work with a huge variety of great people, I miss the sense of working for an organisation that exists to serve the public. One day, I may go back to being a public servant – I would never rule it out. Sitting around the campfire, watching the remains of the plane smoulder on my desert island, what would you rather say when your fellow survivor asks what you did in the real world: “I helped people to find information and protected privacy” or “I went through David Cameron’s bins and wrote about it”?