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] http://www.exaronews.com/articles/5426/daniel-morgan-murder-scotland-yard-obstructs-panel-inquiry 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. http://data.parliament.uk/DepositedPapers/Files/DEP2013-0776/DANIEL_MORGAN_-_FINAL_TERMS_OF_REFERENCE_-_080513.pdf


[2] For the classic description of bureaucratic secrecy see Max Weber http://harpers.org/blog/2009/07/weber-official-secrets-and-bureaucratic-warfare/ See also Secrecy in American Bureaucracy Francis E. Rourke Political Science Quarterly Vol. 72, No. 4 (Dec., 1957), pp. 540-564 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2146193 (registration required)

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Code_of_Silence

[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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Serpico

[5] See http://oro.open.ac.uk/4553/ 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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reputation_management See also Reputation Warfare https://hbr.org/2010/12/reputation-warfare/ar/1

[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. http://interesting-articles.wikispaces.com/file/view/Medical+Slang+in+British+Hospitals.pdf

[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 https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-data-protection/principle-6-rights/subject-access-request/ 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. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2312388/ However, the applicants never know until they put in a SAR and pay their £10 fee.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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