Tag Archives: openness

My ongoing love of consistency

How does one get hold of civil servants? I mean, if you don’t have an ongoing relationship on a particular issue, do you start at the top and work your way down, ring reception and ask for the policy area in question, or what?

I work in a relatively narrow field, and my Whitehall contacts are pretty decent, but I was pondering the statement from Eric Pickles last year when he said “Local activism and localism don’t need lobbyists. If local politicians want to change the way government operates, their council should send a letter or pick up the phone”. I’m assuming he doesn’t literally intend that we should all phone him, constantly, so getting through to the right staff would be useful.

That means finding the right person, even assuming that they are willing and able to have a discussion. It’s fine writing a letter to the relevant Minister, or sending over the Leader to have a ‘private chat’, but that’s only properly useful if you can get to the bottom of the issue first, I think, unless it’s something really obvious on which the Government are merely being wilfully obtuse (ask me for a list).

There used to be a publication called the Civil Service Yearbook. I won’t pretend it was the greatest publication in the world, but it was certainly a start. If you met someone but mislaid their card, you could probably track them down. If you had been told a name but no details, you could probably track them down. If you knew the policy area you were interested in, you… get the idea.

Anyway, and I can’t in fairness blame Eric Pickles for this given the date, the Civil Service Year Book ceased publication last year, and is no longer available in print or online. Querying this, I was told that this was because all the information is going to be given away for free (hurrah) so we no longer need to pay for it.

So where is it? Since then, all I’ve been able to find is the site of “Departmental Organograms”, which, well, they’re fantastic if you’re a journalist or noseypoke who wants to know how much people are paid, how many staff they have, or what silly job titles have been made up. If, on the other hand, you want to know the names of staff below Director level, or the phone numbers or e-mail addresses on which you can contact them, you can pretty much get stuffed.

I raised this with a friend in Whitehall today (hence the rant) who tells me that orders have been sent from on high to reduce the number of Government websites, and the amount of information contained on them. Openness and transparency, isn’t it wonderful.

Oh, and yes, we’re fairly rubbish at this in local government as well, I appreciate that, but (in theory at least) Councillors are easier to get hold of (and, crucially)┬ámore likely to be able to ask the right officers to look into a resident’s┬áproblem than MPs – who aren’t in the same direct relationship with civil servants, who in any case don’t have the same closeness between strategy and operations which still characterises quite a lot of local government work, even in the era of mass outsourcing.