Friend or Foe? The state’s only question about your digital identity

The major issue for the web is how to identify a user. At first glance, this seems an obvious question. We know who someone is by the IP address and the owner of the computer. Except that is not always the case. First, else might be using the computer. A child might be logged on instead of the computer or account owner. Second, someone might be using a false identity, a legend, to appear to be someone else. Third, someone might be using encryption to hide their identity, which makes it difficult if not impossible to identify the person at the computer. Google’s privacy counsel argued a similar point in the year after[1] the EU Article 29 working party ruled on personal data.[2]

Are you the person at the computer?

Google’s argument at the time was that the information they collect relates to a machine and not to a person. Yes, a person may own or associate with the machine and therefore it is personal data for the purposes of the UK DPA and the EU Article 29 Working Party.  However, the wider issue of privacy in the digital age is that we are not certain that the person at the MAC address or IP address is the person listed. Another person could use that address or computer either legally, a housemate, or illegally a hacker or someone seeking a cover. As the identity is difficult to determine, in a way that is not as difficult in the physical domain, the state has to undertake digital investigations and in some case surveillance.  However, encryption increases the difficulty associated with basic effort to validate someone’s identity.

Who is a friend, who is an enemy? The questions a state has to ask. 

The governments in the physical domain spend extensive resources making sure they can identify their citizens for their services. They issue them with passports, so they know they have a right of return if they leave. They issue them with driving licenses so they know they are licensed for the road. They issue them with social security numbers to know who is entitled to social service benefits. For each of these documents they have to prove their identity to the state usually through official birth certificates as issued by the state or a recognized institution. However, this is only part of the issue. Identity is not so much a problem as to determine whether someone is a threat.

Who you are in the physical domain is not always who you are in the digital domain

In the physical domain, residence is usually a sign that an individual is not an immediate threat. People who hate a government or the society usually move away. Even if they do not move away, their thoughts and views against the government can be seen in their physical behavior. They can participate in protests, support violent groups, or take direct action. In each of these, there is a clear line between legitimate politics, as accepted by the society and the illegitimate politics where violence is used for political change. Thus, the problem for a regime is when it uses the methods designed against illegitimate protest on legitimate protest. However, this is a secondary issue as the main issue is how to identify threats.

Unless the state can recognize friend from enemy, it cannot keep you safe

The state’s highest responsibility is for society’s self-preservation from physical threats and secondarily from intellectual threats. Even in the intellectual realm, a state will take a stand against threats to society’s safety especially if the society cannot manage those threats by itself. For example, many states will control or outlaw certain types of speech that are directed at violent overthrow of the state or society. In this way, the liberal democratic state serves to protect itself from a radicalism that would destroy it from within as would external physical threats. We can see this in ways that states, especially at war or under threat, will censor news outlets or even specific individuals. Yet, in those instances, the state can identify the threats.

There is a lot of work to make it easy to identify who you are in the physical domain.

In the digital domain, the identity is harder to confirm. Even if someone says they are the person using the computer at this moment, how does anyone reading their email or blog post know that it is? Moreover, does the ISP know it is their user and not someone else? They may have strong circumstantial evidence that it is user (proper authenticated sign in, regular pattern of behavior[3]) but these rely on secondary issues for verification such as cctv if available, coworkers if present, third party testimony someone else who witnessed the user’s behavior, or a personal statement from the user. All of these problems are ones that the state surveillance systems, through their intelligence agencies, have to overcome. They can be overcome through a huge intensive cross matching of many uncertainties. However, they are much more difficult than the physical domain where no encryption exists.

Will our physical identity become the basis for our digital identity?

What might happen with web identity is that computing becomes as organic as the physical domain.[4] If computing, and storage, become organic then our gene sequence will be our “face” or our identity just as in the physical domain our identity is created within the context of our family, community and state. We can then use ourselves to demonstrate identity or authenticity within the digital domain. With this identity confirmed, the state can then reduce the need to focus on those who can be dismissed as non-obvious threats as they do in the physical domain.

What is God’s name is the same question we ask in the digital domain.

The digital domain’s problem with identity is only an exaggerated version of the problem in the physical domain. We may have a name but who are we? Are we a threat? In this we are reminded of what God said when he was asked his name.  I AM WHO I AM (Exodus 3:14).

Verified identity will reduce the need for digital surveillance.

For the state, the question of identity can be the difference between life and death. In the age of encryption, it is no surprise that the stat is concerned to be able to identify friends from enemies so that it can keeps its side of the bargain to protect society and ensure its self-preservation. In this sense, encryption makes the problem worse and it identifies the problem is not technological it is a political issue of how a state can keep its obligation to its citizens by determining who is a friend and an enemy.

[1] (accessed 29 March 2015)

[2] Here is the website that explains what the Article 29 Working Party is (accessed 29 March 2015) There 2007 decision on personal data is her.

[3] Our online behaviour may tell others more about us than we realize as we type and use input devices. (accessed 29 March 2015)

[4] (accessed 29 March 2015) and (accessed 29 March 2015) and the research press release (accessed 29 March 2015)  Discuss the attempt to store data through saving data as a DNA sequence.

Posted in compliance, elearning, information management, privacy, records management, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Vexatious What the public sector calls a troll?

On the web, people who are argumentative, rude, or even threatening are called trolls. People block them and shun them from contact. In extreme cases, they can be banned from the social media platforms. The same process occurs in the world of public sector customer service. Instead of being declared a troll, you are declared vexatious. When you are declared vexatious, you lose a number of rights. In particular, your right to complain is reduced and your right to contact others about your complaint is reduced.

Doing more with less means no one will suffer fools gladly?

In the public sector, customer service is changing. Over the past few years, the resolve to deal with “problem” customers has increased. In the past, the organisations might have suffered in relative silence. As they lacked the customer service experience, resources, or willingness to deal with these types of customers, they would have put up with them. They would have accepted them as the cost of doing business or simply refuse to deal with them until compelled to by law. Unless they became abusive or threatening, it was difficult for an organisation to turn them away.

Vexatious Litigant is a related issue.

The legal term “vexatious litigant” has existed for many years.[1] It describes a person who makes frivolous or malicious legal claims that do not pursue a legal issue beyond the ability to vex the other party by forcing them to endure a legal claim. The court can declare a litigant as vexatious and future related claims can be rejected or the applicant must seek permission from the court to apply.[2] What is new, though, is that this term and idea vexatious complainant has arrived in customer services. In the past, public sector organisations could not use this approach because it dealt with a particular area, the law, and it was about an application to the court. By contrast, public sector has a legal obligation to provide services and cannot refuse to deal with the applicant. Thus, one approach was to ignore the complainant. For many this is what happened.

The FOIA changed the balance but only for a time.

In 2000 the Freedom of Information Act gave the individual the power to compel an organisation to respond to requests for recorded information. Although it was not the same as dealing with complaints, it did force the public sector organisation to respond to written requests for information. Organisations had to accept that they would have to deal with applicants who had become unreasonable, persistent, and problematic. For the first seven years of the Act’s life, organisations put up with these type of applicants as they believed the law limited their options. In 2011, the First Tier Tribunal overturned the decision to consider an applicant vexatious. The decision of the First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) (Information Rights) dated 20 September 2011, following the hearing on 24 August 2011 under file reference EA/2011/0079. This was appealed by the ICO on behalf of the Devon County Council. The appeal was successful and the Upper Tier Tribunal Information Rights, handed down a ruling supporting the ICO’s appeal. The decision also set ou how “vexatious” requests could be understood.[3] If an organisation decided that the requests fit these categories, they could refuse to respond to it. The exemption also allows the organisation to refuse to accept an applicant’s request on the topic without needing to tell them.[4] Although an applicant can appeal to the ICO, however, success is unlikely.[5] If they appeal to the Upper Tier Tribunal, the stage after the ICO, successful appeals are rare. However, the FOIA ruling is important for another reason. It has provided the public sector a way to class complainants, as it did with requests, as vexatious. I would argue the ruling has changed the way public sector organisations provide customer service and has shifted the balance from the individual to the organisation.

Protect the staff and resources, but at what price?

The public sector in the UK, which has to do the same or more with a reduced budget, has sought way to limit those customers that take up the most time. These customers were often called “problem customers” or “serial complainers” who, for any number of reasons, take up the organisation’s time and resources. They are considered persistent, prolific, or vexatious applicants and organisations, and their customer services, need a way to deal with them. The preferred approach appears to be to declare them vexatious. Once declared vexatious, the organisation can refuse them services, reduce them or manage them in a specific way.[6]

On the surface, the new rules appear to be justified. Complaints and requests can cost a public sector organisation time and money. If the applicant has a grudge or is unreasonable, they can create problems for the organisation. The public purse needs to be protected and staff need to be protected from applicants who have a grudge, who make persistent unreasonable requests, and take up a larger amount of time than other applicants. To do this, organisations have created policies and procedures that help them identify and deal with vexatious complaints.

When we look beneath the surface, the policies give the organisation increased powers over the individual. In one light they can appear potentially undemocratic if not a violation of human rights. In another light, they can appear vindictive as the organisation can use it as a first resort or as a threat to deter and prevent complaints. If you are a vexatious complainant you can lose various rights. Here are the various rights than can be taken away.

The right to free expression: the right to complain.

Some organisations have policies that state if the complaint complains to other people or to another organisations about their complaint or at the same time as their complaint, they can be declared vexatious. Yet, under the Human Rights Act, every individual is allowed the right of free expression (Article 10 Right to free expression and information) except, it would appear, if you have a complaint. Then you lose that right. If you write to your MP about the organisation, they can take that as vexatious behaviour and refuse to deal with you.

Adopting a ‘scattergun’ approach: pursuing a complaint or complaints with the authority and, at the same time, with a Member of Parliament/ a Councillor/ the authority’s independent auditor/ the Standards Board/ local police/ solicitors/ the Ombudsman.

We do not want to be held to account in a way we do not manage

The vexatious complaint procedures will declare your complaint vexatious if you record any meeting or telephone call without informing them first. As I wrote here, people are turning to social media to hold organisations to account. Many people no longer trust the organisations, and their staff, to keep their word. When the trust breaks down, the complainants believe they can only get a fair hearing if they record the meetings or telephone calls. The Data Protection Act allows a person to record a telephone call or a meeting without consent if it is for their own personal use.[7] Once the organisation finds out that you have recorded the call, according to their policy they are free to declare you vexatious and refuse to deal with you except in writing, if at all.

The following, non-exhaustive list, are examples of the actions and behaviours of unreasonable and unreasonably persistent complainants which may cause the policy to be invoked

h) Electronically recording meetings and conversations without the prior knowledge and consent of the other persons involved

In many cases, organisations record or monitor the incoming telephone calls to protect their staff and to ensure customer service standards are being met. Yet, in some cases organisation can work on the principle that if it is not written down it did not happen. Such an approach, while well intentioned, puts the complainant at a disadvantage because the employee not the customer takes the notes. If the issue is contentious, the organisation might say “well our employee wrote it down that way and if it wasn’t written down it did not happen. What evidence do you have that it did happen as you say?”

Raise your voice and you’re on the Potentially Violent Persons Register (PVPR)

If the complainant use aggressive language over the telephone or in person the organisation can put you on their potentially violent persons register (PVPR). Thus, they go from having complained to their MP about the complaint process to being classed as a vexatious complainant. If they express their frustration in less than civil terms, they can be put on the PVPR and declared vexatious.

So whatever you do, try to avoid complaining. If you do complain, make sure you are polite and don’t complain to anyone else at the organisation. Always remember that you cannot contact your MP or anyone else about your complaint until the organisation has decided your complaint. If you fail to follow these rules, you will be declared vexatious. If you make an FOI request about it, you can be declared vexatious.

The organisations now have increased powers to protect themselves and manage the individual. Who is speaking up for the individual?

[1] Here is a short history of the term and the legislation around it. (Accessed 22 February 2015)

[2] Here is a list of vexatious litigants held by the UK government. (Accessed 22 February 2015) This applies to England and Wales

[3] In Information Commissioner v s Devon County Council & Dransfield [2012] UKUT 440 (AAC), (28 January 2013) , Judge Wikeley recognised that the Upper Tribunal in Wise v The Information Commissioner GIA/1871/2011) had identified proportionality as the common theme underpinning section 14(1)and he made particular reference to its comment that ‘Inherent in the policy behind section 14(1) is the idea of proportionality. There must be an appropriate relationship between such matters as the information sought, the purpose of the request, and the time and other resources that would be needed to provide it.’

[4] Here is the guidance from ICO on dealing with requests under section 14 (accessed 22 February 2015)

[5] If we examine the ICO’s database on decision notices, where they rule on whether the organisation applied an exemption or refused information correctly, we see the trend. In the last year, as defined by the ICO data base, there were 131 complaints on s.14. Of these 32 were upheld and 110 were refused. This means that of a 131 cases, the applicant succeeded 32 times while the organisation succeeded in 110 cases. The numbers do not match because there can be partial or overlapping complaints. The next highest, with a public interest test, was s.43 (Commercial Interest). Here there were 47 cases last year. 18 were upheld (siding with applicant) and 28 were refused (siding with the organisation). The highest use exemption was s40 (Personal Information). As there is no public interest test for this category it is an outlier. However, there were 230 requests 52 were upheld (for the applicant) and 189 were against)

[6] The policies are curiously consistent across many organisations and seem to have been copied or shared to save time. I did an internet search with this phrase and found it was the same in a dozen policies. “Electronically recording meetings and conversations without the prior knowledge and

consent of the other persons involved.”

[7] Under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), Section 36, there is an exemption which states that “personal data are exempt from the Data Protection Principles and the provisions of Part II (individuals’ rights) and Part III (notification) of the Act where they are processed by an individual only for the purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes).” This means that an individual can carry out covert recordings without being in breach of the DPA as long as the information is for their own personal and domestic use.

Tribunals and Courts may not like the covert recordings by individuals. However, they will accept that justice needs to be served and any evidence that proves a case needs to be considered. Following a number of tribunal cases that allowed for it to be submitted. (Accessed 22 February 2015) See also The Tribunal was clearly uneasy at admitting the evidence, but could not avoid it on the facts. (Accessed 22 February 2015)

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Who cares if records get lost?

Records life-cycle consisting three stages: cr...

Records life-cycle consisting three stages: creation, maintenance, and disposition of the record. FEA (2005). FEA Records Management Profile, Version 1.0. December 15, 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we hear about the lost records at the Home Office or other public sector organisations, many of us will not give it a second thought. We think that lost files or poor records management are facts of life. We just live with it as governments and organisations muddle through somehow and deliver their services. As long as services are being delivered and nothing is going obviously wrong, the public are content to ignore such internal matters. Even when these files contain something out of the ordinary, such as allegations of child sexual abuse by powerful people, many people have explained the lost or missing records as not something out of the ordinary. Records get lost on a regular basis or they get destroyed as part of the normal records management process. In local government, if the documents are not part of the official decision process, then there is no reason to keep them or provide them to the local Records Office. In the case of the child sexual abuse allegations, the file was small and to some commentators it was relatively unimportant as it only contained allegations. For others, the lost files are explained by the lack of space at the Home Office; which would explain why the files were destroyed. As The Telegraph cautioned that an undue focus on the lost records and the allegations could create an atmosphere conducive to a witch-hunt.[1] ?

Records? We lost those, sorry. Were they important?

At first glance, these views make sense.[2] They appear to explain what happened. It was as an unfortunate incident that happens with unsurprising regularity. Organisations struggle with records management as they lack space to manage the records. Records management is rarely given a high priority and few organisations approach it in a systematic way. For many employees, filing and managing records is neither glamorous nor a priority. For senior managers, and corporate directors, what matters is the organisation delivers its work. If a few files get lost, that is the cost of doing business. Middle managers have higher priority to deliver products and outcomes to their customers and clients.[3] Given that records management is a low priority, often handled as an afterthought or by junior employees, it would appear that lost records only become a concern when their content creates the necessity to find them. If the records had been something else, such as an invoice for an IT project, we would be less concerned. Whatever their priority, we know the police have begun to investigate the child sexual abuse allegations, so do we really need to be concerned with lost records or poor records management?

Without records you cannot hold power to account.

The short answer is yes. You need to be deeply concerned for three main reasons. The first reason is that lost records affect the organisations and the employees that manage the records. The second reason is that the flawed records management, which allows records to be lost, undermines democratic and historical accountability for a community and for the individual. We can see this problem in the Daniel Morgan murder investigation and the Shaw Report. The third reason is the lost records fail to dispel the possibility of a cover-up that destroys the faith in justice.

Archivists are haunted by lost records of potential political misdeeds

For archivists the case in Westminster should raise deep concerns. Although the testimony by those in charge of the records appeared to allay concern about the records being destroyed or edited on purpose, the case contains has a powerful shadow of the way that archives within a political organisation or the police can be threatened. The case will remind archivists of something that haunts the profession. All archivists, and most records managers, will have heard of Heiner Affair and the Nordlinger Affair in Australia.[4] These are Australian cases where public documents were shredded to hide evidence of abuse of young people within the care of the government. The case revealed that politicians pressured records managers and archivists to remove documents and destroy documents to avoid accountability. The same is likely to have occurred in the United Kingdom. The state of records keeping associated with children in care shows a shocking disregard for accountability. The Home Office case is the highest profile example of “lost records”, but it is not the only one nor will it be the last. However, the problem is not new. The problem of lost records is common in local government.[5] Many organisations will cover up their malfeasance through such excuses as lost records. We have seen court cases collapse because of poor records management. The Daniel Morgan murder trial is only one of many cases where poor records management has caused a case to collapse.[6] Even more recently the claim that records were deleted in the phone hacking trial with News Corporation shows the way that records will be deleted. The problems with organisational records management reveal a deeper political problem.

Records create democratic accountability

Without records it is difficult to hold the powerful to account. We only need to consider how Magna Carta, the UK government’s oldest piece of legislation, remains a touchstone as it contains the country’s fundamental political contract. The same role is played by historic town and city charters. Even though we are not interested in historical artefacts they do show how records are used to hold the powerful to account. If the powerful contravene the promises within these documents or the promise that the document expresses, then they can be held to account. However, it is a truism that political power resists the efforts to control or constrain it. The politically powerful seek to manage the ways they are held to account so they can control it or influence it.[7] They will use their power and position, and the resources it provides, to protect themselves and their office. If records create an account against which they can be judged, they will delete, discredit, or destroy it. Even if they welcome it because of political necessity, they will seek to influence it to reflect their interests or the interests of their office. We know from history that to avoid accountability, powerful people and organisations will destroy records that show their faults or criminality.[8] In extreme situations, powerful people will try to influence the records management process or the archival process by putting pressure on archivists and records managers. Such outcomes are not reserved to tyrannies or totalitarian regimes, they also occur in democracies.[9] From the smallest parish council to Parliament, no government is immune from this behaviour. Even without the extreme example of the Heiner affair, the basic problem is that when records are unavailable or inaccessible, democratic accountability is thwarted. The individual cannot hold their government or government representative to account. We have seen in history how repressive regimes regularly destroy records and seek to edit history to avoid accountability. In extreme situation they attempt to edit their opponents or misdeeds from history.[10] The only criminal sanction in the Enron scandal occurred because of the large scale destruction of records to avoid accountability.[11] The pressure to edit records and edit history is something that concerns all records managers and archivists in large part because it makes the complicit in a cover up.

The problem of cover ups

The lost records and the failure to retain documents are issues that go to the core of the archival field and raise deep questions about political accountability, archival independence, and archivist professional ethics and standards. These issues are now more prominent today as social media makes the public and organisations aware of how events are captured and recorded. In addition to public archives and records, which create institutional memories to hold governments and organisations to account, we now have personal records and memories to create an alternative to challenge the official record. We have learned from the Hillsborough tragedy that the Police lied about the events, attempted to cover up their lies, and the Sun proclaimed the official record by claiming it was the truth. They acted in concert to create public story, an official record, to explain the event and shift blame to the Liverpool fans. Only through determined families and individuals, who wanted truth and, were the police and the press brought to account. Without the Hillsborough Inquiry’s records, the families would be denied a chance at justice.

Rotherham: an outlier or a harbinger?

In the Rotherham scandal, records disappeared from the organisation. Reports were suppressed and kept from being recorded in the Council’s formal decision process, which meant that they were not retained.[12] If the records were managed appropriately, they would have been either submitted to Members as part of the public record or they would have been retained as evidence of officer decisions. However, in both cases, they were not included so that they could not be retained for historical accountability. The officers avoided organisational scrutiny and, for the most part, historical scrutiny. One witness, in a sworn statement, has alleged that records of the scale of the sexual abuse, which would have shown the council’s and the police’s short comings, were removed from a locked filing cabinet within a secure Council office.[13] In the Rotherham case, like the Hillsborough case, other organisations and people retained enough of the records to show the files that existed and were able to demonstrate that the organisation “knew” of them. If the records are not kept or are destroyed or “lost”, it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to obtain justice.

Is asking for good records management asking for a witch hunt?

When the media, like the Telegraph raise concerns about the possibility of a witch hunt, they may be taking a myopic view.[14] As such, it can make it appear that the concern for poor record keeping around child abuse allegations is only a concern for records manager and archivists. The records relate to someone’s life. Moreover, the UK’s less honourable history is demonstrated in the way it has handled records of the most vulnerable: looked after children.[15] The state becomes their parents by default. When the state loses their records or destroys their records, it takes away their childhood memories. It takes away their voice. It takes away their ability to seek justice. However, some governments, perhaps ones more sensitive to the problem of historical injustice at the hands of those who had power over them, have listened to their citizens and taken steps to right historical wrongs. In the UK, Scotland has done this with the Shaw report.

What is the Shaw Report?

The Shaw Report refers to Scotland’s Historical Abuse Systemic Review: Residential Schools and Children’s Homes in Scotland 1950 to 1995.[16] Tom Shaw led the work and wrote the report. The report catalogued the institutional abuses children and young people suffered over decades in Scotland’s Residential Schools and Children’s homes. It revealed the poor record keeping by the homes and the local government that denied the adult survivors a chance to recover their childhood memories. They were denied the records children (and adults) take for granted.

How Scotland used its devolved powers to protect the vulnerable

Scotland used devolved powers to create the report and change its records management system. England has refused to do this. It is not surprising given the scale of abuse and the way the establishment treated looked after children. It is time that England reformed its records management system to deliver the opportunity for justice to its most vulnerable. It needs to give its children a chance to retain their childhood memories.[17]

Why does Parliament resist the need for good records management?

When we see the lost files in this context, we see the deeper problem. This is not a problem of Westminister mandarins. This is not a problem of selective record keeping. This is not a problem of competing institutional priorities. This is a problem of justice. Justice is the core of any decent political society. If justice is unavailable to victims, can any government consider itself decent or civilized? Parliament’s refusal to change its approach to records management raises questions about its commitment to justice. It suggests an institutional resistance to being held to account by the public let alone the victims. Parliament is accountable only to itself. When the issue is framed as “a few lost records”, it suggests an inability to see what the problem represents. The question gets to the heart of the British society. We either have a decent political society where we are equal and accountable before the law or we have a society where the strong can do as they will and the weak must suffer because they lack the power to defend themselves. Democratic accountability starts with records management. The desire to avoid accountability seems to be a common theme rather than an unintended outcome. If Britain is to address the issue of historical child abuse and child sexual exploitation, it must get its records in order. If Westminster will not prioritize records management how can it claim to have a democratically accountable government? To put it directly, it is time that England had its equivalent of a Shaw report. Scotland has done it so why can’t England?



[2] What most people will not know, though, is that in 1952 (5 September 1952) the Home Office issued a circular HO 200/52 that stated “Indecent practices in approved schools or boys and criminal offences involving the interests of boys or girls detained in approved schools”. Thus we find evidence that records should be kept of allegations and such matters should be reported to the police. (see paragraph 7). The next questions are whether such allegations were reported and what happened to the records?

[3] A priority can be used to justify any course of action either to avoid something or to do it. The most well-known is the priority of national security. All organisations have these priorities and are able to refer to them as needed. For example, the police will refer to their priority to fight crime or maintain order. A local council might say that social services are the priority. You might see this referred to as a “duty of care” such as a duty of care to ensure the health and safety of employees. Curiously, when an accident occurs, the organisation will do all that it can to either get out of this duty of care, strict view of the issue, or demonstrate that it was taking all the minimum steps necessary but could not do more because of other priorities. In rare occasions, an organisation might look at all of its priorities and consider whether it has chosen the right ones. Perhaps, you might ask your local councillor or your MP or the government department what their priorities are and how they reconcile them when they conflict.

[4]   (accessed 19 January 2014)

[5] Consider that in 1952 the Home Office issued instructions that allegations were to be reported to the police. Many did not and fewer recorded heir abuse as many have no records relating to any abuse or allegations of abuse. (accessed 19 January)

[6] See reference to cases in Wales. Cite the reference to Daniel Morgan found elsewhere in a previous blog.

[7] See for example the different types of holding to account. (accessed 19 January 2015)

3.5 It is helpful to consider further what the notion of accountability entails. One analysis 1  has split it into four aspects:

giving an explanation – through which the main stakeholders (for example Parliament) are advised about what is happening, perhaps through an annual report, outlining performance and activity;

providing further information – where those accountable may be asked to account further, perhaps by providing information (e.g. to a select committee) on performance, beyond accounts already given;

reviewing and, if necessary, revising – where those accountable respond by examining performance, systems or practices, and if necessary, making changes to meet the expectations of stakeholders; and

granting redress or imposing sanctions – if a mechanism to impose sanctions exists, stakeholders might enforce their rights on those accountable to effect changes.

1 Barbaris P (1998) ‘The New Public Management and a New Accountability’ in Public Administration, Autumn. Also Neale A and Anderson B (2000) ‘Performance Reporting for Accountability Purposes – Lessons, Issues, Futures’ paper at International Public Management Workshop, Wellington, New Zealand

[8] In Hannah Arendt book Eichmann in Jerusalem, we see that in the final year of the war, the Nazis tried to destroy records of the Final Solution in the belief they could avoid or minimize the accountability.

[9] We can see this in the way Wikipedia accounts are edited by powerful people through their proxies.

[10] In extreme situations people are banished from history. The Damnatio memoriae refers to this process.

[11] The case against the accounting firm Arthur Andersen as a result of shredding documents that revealed Enron’s faulty accounting practices was ultimately overturned. (accessed 19 January 2015). The case was overturned because the burden of proof to determine criminal intent was too low. However, it still shows that it was records management and the destruction of records that was the turning point.

[12] Unless a document held by an officer is entered into the official decision making process either through a Cabinet meeting or through an official decision, it will not be retained in the archives.

[13] The Home Office researcher at Rotherham explains what happened. (accessed 19 January 2015)

[14] A less charitable view would be to suggest that they have an institutional interest in dismissing the story as they work within a political framework and, like the Sun, they have a relationship with those in power which they wish to nurture. However, such an uncharitable view would need someone else to investigate it.

[15] Other records capture the UK’s history such as the Kenya torture records and many of these were destroyed.

[16] (accessed 19 January 20150

[17] (accessed 19 January 2015)

The record keeping review led to the change in the law in Scotland. Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011 (accessed 19 January 2015)

A model system was developed that all Scottish public authorities had to follow to comply with the public records act (Scotland) 2011.

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January Break see you in February

Dear Subscribers,

I hope you had an excellent 2014 and I wish you a wonderful 2015. I am letting you know that I am taking a break from blogging until February. I have been writing three blogs over the past year and I wanted to pause and recharge. I thank you for reading the blog over the past year and I hope you will continue to follow it.

Look for future posts in February.

See you then.

All the best,


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Why do bureaucracies delay disclosing information: the Case of Daniel Morgan Independent Panel

English: Administrative burden in Bucharest (R...

English: Administrative burden in Bucharest (Rumania) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to a recent report, the Metropolitan Police have delayed the work of the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel.[1] The article says the delay is caused by the lack of an agreed protocol with the Panel for the transfer of documents and records. The police want to protect the identities of two informants. The claim is reasonable and respectable. Without informants, the police would find it difficult, if not impossible, to solve cases. If an informant cannot be protected, then few would volunteer information. However, there are other reasons why a bureaucracy would delay disclosing information. Christopher Hood has explored many of these and the efforts taken to resist them in his article “What happens when transparency meets blame avoidance?

All organisations are bureaucracies which means they are secretive by default.

All large organisations are bureaucracies and they will have their own reasons to keep information private.  However, by their nature, bureaucracies are secretive. They keep secrets for operational reasons (to keep sensitive information from competitors). They keep secrets for organisational reasons (to keep information secret until it is needed such as a product launch).[2] In this case, though, the veil of secrecy is being removed. The Metropolitan Police and the other organisations have agreed, in principle, to disclose information. However, they have continued to delay that disclosure. They have provided a public reason, the concern over their informants, but there are other, private reasons that need to be considered.

The list of reasons set out below is not exhaustive. They capture the main ones that justify keeping information secret. These are the reasons that have to be overcome when they decide to disclose information. Organisations may have to disclose information because of legislation, like the Freedom of Information Act or the Data Protection Act, or voluntarily such as under the terms of the inquiry. The reasons also show why it is so difficult for organisations to be transparent.

Institutional Embarrassment. The case is embarrassing to the organisation. Despite six investigations and over 25 million pounds, the police have not been able to bring Daniel Morgan’s murder to justice. The Independent Panel is set up to look at these failures. The organisation will know its own failures and now the panel, and the public, will know them as well in detail. It is one thing to be accused of incompetence and failure; it is another thing to have it demonstrated publicly.

Internal politics. The Metropolitan Police are a large organisation and like all large organisations, they have their own internal politics. Who is in charge of disclosing the information will have the power to harm their political opponents within the force. What is disclosed will have a direct impact on the status and reputation of a number of officers current and former. To the extent that there are those pushing for disclosure, they will face resistance from those who have something to lose, such as a promotion or a status built on that reputation. Someone has to take the fall and like penguins on an ice raft, they are jostling for place to avoid being pushed off.

Ego. In any organisation, managers and senior managers will have tied their egos to decisions or positions. They will defend those positions so that they do not lose face. To that end, they use the organisation to prevent or delay disclosing anything that will hurt their ego. To understand this we need to look at the officers who have sign off on the documents and which officers who have been consulted on the decision.

Waiting Game. Bureaucrats know that if they wait long enough, the problem will go away. The senior managers or managers wait or delay so the applicant loses interest. The waiting game is particularly useful when there is no regulator to give some urgency or force the organisation to answer. Even then, the organisation can use this to their advantage. When the applicant has to pester the organisation, they seem vexatious. The organisation has delayed but they rarely admit that to a regulator. Instead, they point to the applicant who has unreasonable and vexatious behaviour. An institution can wait; the person cannot.

Code of silence.[3] The need for secrecy can have formal or legitimate reasons and it can have informal and illegitimate reasons. A code of silence is an example of the latter. In a police service, as in any regulatory agency, everyone has a skeleton, a dodgy decision, a dubious arrest, or complicit in a decisions that flouted the law. No one speaks up because they do not want their own flaws to be revealed.[4] A related issue is that police may ignore small infractions, as part of the job, but object to financial gain.[5]

Reputation management.[6] All organisations try to protect their reputation. If they are in the private sector, they do this to survive. In the public sector, they do this to make it easier to work.  Good customer service and a good reputation take less effort than dealing with complaints, investigations, and regulatory oversight. If the documents and records threaten that reputation, an organisation will want to disclose them in a way that does the least damage.

Fear of defamation. In organisations, employees often write comments in emails and notes that they never expect anyone outside the organisation to read them. In other cases, they may use slang some of which may be particularly derogatory or disrespectful.[7] In particular, they never expect the subject of their comments to read them let alone know about them. When disclosure is threatened, the employees start to panic.[8] They know they have written comments that will embarrass them. Even if they are no longer employees, the organisation will know that the comments are inappropriate and fear the consequences. They will attempt to cover it up. The best response is to apologize for it and explain that they will remind staff that such terms are not right. However, trying to cover it up is usually the immediate reaction because it protects the employee and the organisation. (See above Ego and Reputation Management)

The other organisations in the inquiry will have similar reasons when it decides to show documents and records to the panel. The organisations know that the panel has no power to compel disclosure. This may create the perverse incentive to withhold more and show less. Whatever happens, the panel will have to find a way to overcome these barriers if they are to succeed.


[1] There are 7 organisations, including the Metropolitan Police, due to provide information to the Panel.

“b) obtain and examine all relevant documentation from all relevant bodies,

governmental and non-governmental alike, including but not limited to

papers held by;

 The Metropolitan Police;

 The Hampshire Police;

 The Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney General’s Office;

 The Police Complaints Authority (as it was then);

 The Independent Police Complaints Commission;

 Southwark Coroner’s Court;

 The Home Office.”


The panel will also accept information from and interview relevant individual

“c) interview and receive relevant information from individuals who are willing

to provide that information”;

See the terms of reference for the panel.


[2] For the classic description of bureaucratic secrecy see Max Weber See also Secrecy in American Bureaucracy Francis E. Rourke Political Science Quarterly Vol. 72, No. 4 (Dec., 1957), pp. 540-564 (registration required)


[4] The police are in a position similar to the military because their lives are in their colleagues hands. If you are seen as unreliable or worse a “snitch”, you may find your colleagues desert you when you are in trouble. The Serpico case in New York is an example of what can happen. The circumstances of the case suggested that his fellow officers set him up to be murdered and none of them called for medical assistance when he was shot.

[5] See Westmarland, Louise (2005). Police ethics and integrity: breaking the blue code of silence. Policing and Society, 15(2) pp. 145–165.

[6] See for example See also Reputation Warfare

[7] In this article, the authors left out some of the nastier slang for fear of encouraging others to use it.

“The largest group is simple obscenity and derogatory name-calling. We include many such terms, but would refrain from encouraging their use and, as such, withhold those intended to simply offend.”

Terms like FLK (Funny Looking Kid) or NFN (Normal for Norfolk) were often used by organisations especially before the Data Protection Act allowed people to find out what was being said about them and the organisations had to explain the acronyms.

[8] We can see this when organisations had to explain what they wrote about clients or patients after the Data Protection Act (DPA) allowed people to access their personal data. If you want to find out, all you need to do is pay £10 and write a letter explaining that you want the organisation to provide your personal data and enough information to help them identify and locate your personal data. For further advice see the Information Commissioner’s website If there are no derogatory statements and no questionable remarks by anyone anywhere, over a 27 year period, it would be quite an achievement as the profession, unlike the medical profession, is not known for its pastoral care of individuals. However, the applicants never know until they put in a SAR and pay their £10 fee.

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The lies organisations tell themselves: the case of Rotherham Council

"Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsk...

“Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky”, Oil on canvas. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every man has some [truths] which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has others which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But finally there are still others which a man is even afraid to tell himself.
~Fyodor Dostoevsky

Rotherham Borough Council has a problem. The public will know the most obvious problem. They failed to deal effectively with child sexual exploitation. What they will know less well is the culture that allowed these problems to go untreated. Few, if any, outside the council will know the institutional problems that remain. The problems that remain come from its corporate culture. The problem is the lie the organisation tells itself about itself. All organisations have blind spots for their own weaknesses. Good leaders look for these to either fix them or at least keep them from becoming a larger problem. An organisation cannot be perfect in all things, so it tries to get most things right. The most important thing to get right is the culture. Once you have a robust culture, then any weakness can be mitigated. Why? A robust culture is one where you avoid surprises and work through the problems together. Rotherham, though, does not realize that it continues to lie to itself as an organisation.
A culture that refuses to ask questions, is a culture waiting to collapse
As I wrote previously, Rotherham’s historical problems were the result of a toxic culture within the police and the council. Their culture kept them from understanding the size and the scale of the child sexual exploitation scandal. In the council, no one was prepared or able to ask the questions about the problem’s size, scale, and scope. When someone took a focused interest, we see fierce resistance from within the council and within the police. It is against that background that Rotherham Council promised to improve. The council promised to learn from the mistakes. They would avoid the culture that was unwilling and unable to ask the awkward questions and deal with the difficult subjects. The old council had suppressed questions and the new council would encourage professional curiosity. The Jay report showed that officers were discouraged from asking questions and thinking. When people did ask questions, they were either dismissed or suppressed. The questions that would force the organisations to “think” and take responsibility to understand the problem never emerged. Rotherham lacked a curiosity culture. Instead of professional curiosity, senior officers and Members focused on defending the council’s reputation. The senior officers modelled this behaviour and junior officers followed it.
A culture change was promised, but what has been delivered?
We were promised that the culture has changed. The old culture is gone and a new culture exists. This is the lie that Rotherham Council tells itself. In his response to the Jay report, the Chief Executive told the council that
“Professional curiosity is encouraged and this supports staff to raise issues and know they will be taken seriously.”
At the time, I believed that statement. I accepted it at face value. I wrote that it was damning that the Chief Executive had to reassure the public and councillors on this topic. I suggested that a wider curiosity culture needed to be developed. What I did not realize is that the claim was meaningless. The claim is not what it appears to mean. If you believe that Rotherham now encourages officers to ask questions, has a candid culture, and officers actively challenge and question assumptions you would be mistaken.

What evidence was there to back up their claim?
I made an FOIA request for the evidence behind the Chief Executive’s statement. A public statement should have evidence to support it. Otherwise, it is an empty assertion, a wish, and not a concrete reality. What I found was the council could not find a report, evidence, or document that demonstrates professional curiosity is encouraged. I was told that to find this information would exceed the fees limit. Even though the Chief Executive must have had a policy or a procedure in mind when he made the public statement, nothing was to hand. Instead, it would take over 18 hours of officer work to find the information.

Whistleblowing is not a symptom of professional curiosity
What the council was able to give, to demonstrate that professional curiosity is encouraged, was their whistle blower policy , a staff suggestion scheme, and a reporting system. The gap between professional curiosity that would ask questions of the council and challenge assumptions and what the council has described is vast. I would suggest that the exchange indicates the culture has not changed. It is another question whether it is changing, but based on the evidence provided, it does not appear to be changing. What is needed is a candid culture or a curiosity culture where people can raise questions without fear. If the council wants to learn from its past, it needs to create a process where bad news (critical news) can be reported as part of the normal business. If bad news is only seen with a Whistleblowing policy, then there is a problem. Basic questions of poor performance and problems within a service should not require a whistle blower. These should be something the organisation can discuss. A staff suggestion scheme is a small step in the right direction, but it is not a forum to discuss bad or critical news. Moreover, it does not indicate that bad news is welcomed. Where does the council discuss bad news? Rotherham has lied to itself if it believes it encourages professional curiosity with a staff suggestion scheme or a whistle blower policy.

The lies we tell ourselves are the worst
If Rotherham Council continues to lie to itself, how can it claim to have changed? It will change it has changed senior officers, but is it changing gits culture? Until it recognises that it does not yet encourage professional curiosity, how can it say it will deal effectively with the problems that emerge? It is time for Rotherham Council to tell itself the truth. Until it does, it will store up problems for the future.

What are some ways to develop professional curiosity?
If you organisation tends to lie to itself, you can take some steps to avoid these problems.
1. Develop a culture that encourages critical upwards communication. As I mentioned Denis Tourish’s work is good in this area.
2. Develop a candid culture, where people are willing and able to speak up because there are safe places to do this.
3. Encourage staff curiosity by making the full extended management team, not just one service, responsible for the issue. When many people see they have a stake in the issue, they can offer solutions and insights without the bias of those in the service
4. Accept that without bad news there is no chance to improve. If your service or your organisation is always reporting green key performance indicators then it is not challenging itself. The danger is that the service or the organisation is too focused on its reputation and not on the outcomes it is delivering. If it is not challenging itself, it will never deliver the promised results. Instead, it will make excuses.

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Is an organisation corrupt or just ill?

United Nations World Health Organisation logo

United Nations World Health Organisation logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we hear about a corrupt organisation we often are surprised and outraged. What we fail to consider is that all organisations are never completely healthy. They are all ill to some extent. They will have practices that are dubious, decisions that are suspect, and staff that are problematic. Leaders decide how much toxicity can be tolerated before it becomes a problem.[1] The leader has to manage the organisation’s health. When the organisation becomes unwell, “rogue employees” emerge or “rotten apples” start to appear, the leader needs to act. As the organisation’s most visible symbol, the leader has the largest role in managing its health.[2] When organisations become unwell, though, it is not enough to look at the top. We have to look inside the organisation.

What are signs of an organisation that has become ill?

The symptoms can vary. In some cases, it can be a decline in profits or productivity. In the public sector sickness absence rates are a good measure. When staff are physically ill, especially stress related illnesses; the organisation is likely to be ill. Many organisations focus on the employee and ignore the way the organisation can make the employees ill. Such an approach only deals with the problem’s symptoms. The employees may be stressed because responsibility and accountability are not connected. The tasks they perform may not be linked to the outcomes the organisation claims to deliver.[3] Also there can be a gap between what the organisation tells the public or does in public and what happens inside it.[4]

To avoid illnesses, listen to the street.

Inside each organisation, people tell stories. These stories will indicate the health of the organisation’s culture. The middle managers tell stories to translate the corporate strategy into frontline practice.[5] How they tell those stories will create or cure an organisational illness. If middle managers are unwilling or unable to tell senior managers about frontline constraints, it creates a problem. In the same way, if they tell staff to accept toxic behaviour by another employee, it discourages people from raising issues. These stores are important and senior managers need to listen to them.

What stories are do you tell each other at work?

The stories we tell each other at work about work senior managers need to understand the stories that they tell about the organisation because that sets the tone.[6] If a senior manager tells their junior direct reports that they were reamed out for a misplaced comma or that they were raked over the coals for bad press, it will tell the junior employees and managers something about the company. The stories give them their cues and set the culture or expectations. The frontline staff will take their cues from that behaviour and those stories. The same process works the other way. If junior employees are telling stories about a problem, then senior managers need to listen.

What is compromising your organisation’s immune system?

For an organisation to become ill, its immune system must be compromised either its culture or its structure. If the organisational structure is compromised, then corruption can take root and then flourish. If the board of directors becomes blinded by the profits and success, they will begin to overlook problems and fail to ask searching questions. Why ask questions about something that is making you rich and appears to be working? The Board needs to remain vigilant about whether they are being denied information that would allow them to curtail the excess. In this area, transparency and accountability can help. However, there needs to be more than transparency. There has to be a will to act on what is seen. When organisational checks are undermined (over time) the organisation starts to weaken, become vulnerable to illness.

Are you seeking out people who know what is going wrong?

There are people who know what is going wrong. It is these people that the leader needs to find and listen to or have his trusted subordinates listen to so that they can keep their ear on the street.[7] If they are not ready to listen to those who are making uncomfortable points, what kind of leadership does that suggest? This is more than creating critical upwards communication. A formal system is important, but the informal systems set the tone. No organisation, no matter how small, is completely transparent to itself. However, it has to find a way to confront uncomfortable truths from time to time.

To understand the illness, ask why people are leaving

Just as doctors will check a patient’s vital signs and run tests, senior managers need to do the same. They need to consider who they have hired and why. Do they know why people are coming to work at the organisation? If the new hires have a different set of expectations than the internal culture, the senior managers need to understand why that gap exists. Another area to consider is to look at exit interviews. Why are staff leaving? An organisation will become ill if good people are leaving and it cannot attract good people. To put it directly, if senior managers do not know why people are arriving or why they are leaving, how can they understand the organisation’s health?


For the public, it is important to look beyond an organisation’s surface. If we only criticise an organisation as “corrupt” we fail to understand the source of that corruption. If we want to reform the organisation, then we need to understand what makes it ill. Once we understand what makes it ill, we can help it get better.

[1] I do not mean criminality or behaviour that threatens the staff or the public. I mean the underlying problems or issues that emerge in an organisation when personalities intersect with opportunities that cause problems such as low level harassment, bullying, intimidation, and negativity.


[3] This can help explain the highest stress jobs include teachers and journalists.




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