Friday, 19 June 2009

Blank - the bureaucratic default position

Just when we thought the scandal about MPs' expenses and allowances couldn't plumb new depths the Parliamentary authorities released copies of relevant documents but deleted so many details that a lot of the documents provided no relevant information at all. In some cases the whole document was blanked-out, yet still it was released for public consumption. The only real pleasure in this exercise has been the reintroduction of the verb "to redact" to everyday usage, thereby dredging it from its old home in the Chancery Division of the High Court, a home in which it gave many of us enormous pleasure for years.

When challenged about the futility of revealing documents that don't allow a clear examination of whether expenses or allowances were properly claimed, the response from the politicians concerned has been a unified "nothing to do with us guv". In a way they are correct. They assert that the decision to edit receipts and expenses forms was taken by civil servants without guidance or instructions from any of our elected politicians. If this is correct, it is indeed nothing to do with them but only in a narrow sense of them not having taken the decision. In a wider, and I believe more accurate, sense it is everything to do with them because they failed to ensure that the material released would satisfy the purpose of the exercise, namely to allow the little people to assess whether claims for reimbursement were valid.

Taking their narrow point at face value, what has happened is a good indicator of one of the most significant problems with bureaucracy. By definition bureaucracy is concerned with implementing a system and not with whether that system is effective or efficient. It is about following procedures whether or not they make sense and whether or not they deliver a benefit. We have seen this at work in so many fields of the public sector recently.

The Financial Services Authority concerned itself with the procedures followed by banks and other lenders rather than with the substance of the effect of the loans on the whole financial sector. A bank that advanced a large loan to someone with no realistic prospect of being able to service the interest payments let alone repay the capital raised no FSA eyebrows provided the correct forms were used. Hospitals have had to provide streams of statistical material to the Department of Health (or whatever they are calling it this week) rather than spending the resources involved on treating patients or keeping wards clean. Policemen are kept off the streets to fill in forms. And armies of pen-pushers have been employed at taxpayers' expense to shuffle information up and down the hierarchy in every government department. Filling in the form is often more important than what the form contains. After all, the information on the forms can usually be interpreted to say almost anything the government wants it to say. The job of the bureaucrats is, both literally and figuratively, a matter of form rather than substance.

And so it is with the redaction of MPs' receipts and claims. There can be no doubt that some information on these documents should not be released because to do so would compromise the privacy of innocent third parties or because they are simply irrelevant. For example, a document might disclose the home address and telephone number of an MP's secretary as well as showing how much he or she was paid; it is the latter information that matters, the former is usually not only irrelevant but is not something the public has any legitimate right to know. An MP who submits an invoice from a shop containing five items of which only one is claimed as an expense can reasonably expect the other items to be blanked-out because they are none of the public's business. But what happens if redacting an ostensibly irrelevant detail, or one which might be thought to be none of the public's business, results in the document becoming ambiguous or even meaningless? That defeats the whole purpose of the exercise, so a balance has to be struck between the need to ensure the validity of expenses claims can be assessed and the need to keep irrelevant and personal details from prurient gaze. It is not only in the current climate that assessment of the validity of claims must be paramount. For example, where the MP's secretary's address is the same as the MP's address that fact is, on the face of things, a legitimate factor in evaluating the claim for reimbursement because it can cause perfectly fair and reasonable questions to be asked.

Redacting documents requires the exercise of judgment. It requires substance to be placed above form and sometimes involves a difficult balancing exercise between keeping private that which is genuinely private and exposing that which is necessary to be disclosed even though it is private. I am not at all surprised to find that things were done as they were because that is the nature of bureaucracy, it is non-judgmental. The default position is the path of least resistance - arrive at 9am, follow the guidelines slavishly, tea break at 11, follow the guidelines slavishly, lunch between 1 and 2, follow the guidelines slavishly, cup of tea at 3.30, follow the guidelines slavishly, go home at 5pm. Do not think for yourself, do not seek to exercise judgment, push that pen, shuffle that paper, tote that barge, lift that bale, never get a little drunk and land in jail.

1 comment:

sobers said...

This is the modern way. I run my own business, and have realised what matters when dealing with the forces of the State is not the reality of whatever they wish to inspect, but the paperwork. As long as my paperwork all looks OK, what is really happening on the ground (as long as its not blatently obvious) is irrelevant.

The reason for this is that a trained monkey can look at paperwork (and the product of our schools nowadays struggles to get to trained monkey level), whereas to actually inspect things and work out from knowledge whether something is being done correctly/safely/within the law etc etc, takes years of training, on the job experience and the exercise of that bete noir of modern life, JUDGEMENT.

No public official ever wants to have to exercise his or her judgement, becasue they can be liable for said decision. Far better to design forms for people to fill in, and check said forms, and prosecute people who don't fill them in, or do so incorrectly.