“An unnecessary burden… or an essential diagnostic into the culture and accountability of public service organisations?”
We thought we should blog about our most recent information gathering exercise aimed at informing our on-going progressive research into public sector transformation. This year has been markedly different in terms of our experience of the process.
We did everything we could to make the process easy for organisations. We deliberately kept our request limited to largely historic high-level Management Performance Indicators (M&PIs) that should be readily available and indeed constantly reviewed by management teams.
We know that some public servants treat these requests as a hindrance distracting them from their important day jobs and some even resent having to deal with them. We feel, this year, that it is worth commenting on the process we have been through. This blog is not intended to be critical but rather to highlight two things:
- The vast difference in the way these requests are now handled and the perceptions these different approaches create in the Enquirer;
- The risk that as funding pressures tighten, this vital access route might be diminished and, as a result, accountability and transparency irrevocably weakened.
Starting with the positives, a significant proportion of Welsh Local Government did submit returns within the 20 day timescale set under the Act and provided the majority of the information we requested. Worthy of praise are Newport CBC who completely exceeded our expectations even offering further advice/assistance if we needed it, and Monmouthshire CC who were professional, supportive and helpful. In both cases, we could sense, a genuine desire to provide access to this information. Their approach instils into the Enquirer a natural feeling/impression of openness and a confidence in the organisation’s capability.
Sadly, this year, there were a higher number of organisations who: failed to respond; refused to provide anything at all; or considered our request too labour intensive to undertake. Some were simply not able to provide data on basic issues like: the gross level of debt/borrowing; the number of part-time and full-time staff changes in the period; the amount spent on consultancy; and which services had been affected by funding pressures. A few “helpfully” directed us to documentation on their website. In one particular case, when we printed it all off for review, it was a pile of paper 4.5cms thick and over 500 pages to plough through. Really helpful! We were left feeling incredibly grateful that all 22 UAs hadn’t adopted the same helpful approach.
I should mention here, that the vast majority seem to us, to have acted within the legal framework and were compliant with the FOI ACT 2000. In a number of cases though, we were left questioning: If the organisation really cannot produce this basic information with ease, then how can they possibly be “in control” of their organisation? For us, the inability of some organisations to provide this basic M&PI data without someone investing three days effort to get it, represents a huge risk in terms of good governance. Most of it, we consider, should be routinely available on a dashboard report as headline intelligence for management.
On the way in which FOI requests seem to be handled, our experience ranged from being delighted by the FOI journey to be being completely frustrated by it. In some cases, there was a complete absence of customer care or even basic communication skills and common courtesy.
For many, the first contact with the process will be trying to find out whom to email your request to or to ask for a named Officer that you can talk to about your request. Alternatively, it may perhaps be a phone call asking how to submit your request. Again, we experienced the full spectrum of customer care competency. When we contacted Monmouthshire CC we had an incredibly helpful response with email addresses willingly provided and a named Officer assigned to our Enquiry. With others, there was a pregnant pause, followed by: We’ll just connect you to our Legal Team, Solicitor’s Department or even worse… our Complaints Team!
We wonder how the average citizen must feel when that happens. We certainly didn’t want to be treated as a complainant or someone legally challenging public sector organisations. All we wanted was to gain access to some information we consider to be important and to do so through a standard time-bound process.
With the request submitted our experience of the FOI journey ranged from being on the receiving end of a faceless automated process to being treated as human-beings with respect. In some cases the entire process can be completed and you will never have a name of an Officer who is handling it for you. Every written communication being signed-off “FOI Team/Unit or the Complaints Team”. In some cases you aren’t even given a telephone number so that you can speak to someone if you wanted to. Customer care, common courtesy and personalised service are, in many instances, completely excluded from the process. There are exceptions, Conwy CC being one of them, where a named Officer made the effort to contact us and discussed our request and then, helpfully, kept us regularly up to date with progress. It was professional, citizen-centred and demonstrated excellent customer care.
Despite the undeniable pressures that our precious public services are under, some organisations are still able to demonstrate outstanding FOI Service Delivery. Sadly, others are seemingly unable to get even the basics right in terms of customer experience, perception and communications.
Leaving aside the handling processes (which can be improved through others learning off those with best practice), our main concern from our recent experiences, is that this vital service might be suffering due to the pressures organisations are under.
Our point of view is that we see the FOI process as a vital route to information. It might even provide a window into the very culture of organisations and has a crucial role to play in underpinning accountability and transparency.
We hope that one of the recommendations to come from the Commission into Public Service Delivery and Governance will be a strengthening of this service, not just for the reasons above, but as means of bringing our public sector service providers and our public servants closer to us, the CITIZENs they are there to serve!
To those who positively helped us with our research effort… We are genuinely grateful to each of the Officers concerned. Well Done!