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Wriggle room

June 5, 2010

Ok we are all in favour of transparency, but we are in danger of forgetting about the power of discretion. The UK just published the salaries of all Civil Servants earning more than the prime minister, all government expenditure has been put on line for analysis and there is talk this morning about forcing local authorities to publish all spending over £500. I must admit this worries me for two reasons:

  • Firstly, even at a senior level there is a need for some privacy. The Prime Minister is a millionaire in his own right, he has not devoted his whole career to public service and he not the right comparison. The salaries paid to Permanent Secretaries are low compared with any equivalent position in industry and when you take bonus levels into account its even less. I can see a case for knowing the salary levels of people brought in from outside, without the background and training of the civil service but not for this generic disclosure. It smacks to me of a power play to use the press to achieve goals that would be better achieved through conversation and negotiation with the appropriate trade union.
  • Secondly, removing all discretion and exposing everything will make people less and less inclined to experiment, to take a punt, to try something out. In effect publication places a massive constraint on what should be seen as a complex system. Its the same error as outcome based measurement. If you can only do things where you declare in advance what the result will be, then you will only do safe things. Equally if everything you do is available to the press then you will be very very careful before you take any risk, and pandering to the needs of The Sun is no basis for public policy. The argument that lots of people looking at the figures is specious, we know that those looking will be on the hunt for stories

The data should of course be available for audit and we know, from the expenses scandal that disgruntled people will leak if they see obvious unfairness so there are controls in place. However what we need in public policy at the moment is some freedom to experiment, not a level of constraint which causes people to draw back into the banality of the acceptable.

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