On Confidentiality ........
Here’s an interesting email thread (potentially confidential stuff “xxxx”d out) showing something the sorts of battles I have behind council scenes. Do you agree on this one? Or do you see the Council’s point of view? These are things you never normally get to know about but it is all an insight into that matrix of democratic control that I feel is being (has been!) slowly sneaked away from Councillors.
As usual the emails need to be read from the bottom - last one - first to make any sense of them.
Thanks for this. The policy I am relying on was determined by Council when it agreed to move to electronic communications for Members and then cut the budget for paper, postage, etc. Giving Members access to information is , if anything, now better and quicker. Being careful about the security of that information is simply commonsense as well as a requirement. As ever, I am open to suggestions and feedback on the operation of the new arrangements. I would be happy to consider changes if they seriously disadvantage individuals. I'm not sure what you mean in your comment on laptops but would be happy to discuss it with you. I have asked Kevin to send you a copy of the new guidelines on exempt information.
From: Chris Cooke [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: 23 March 2006 21:21
To: Weatherley, David
Cc: Lloyd-Williams, Philip; Briggs, Kevin; Cook, Ron; Seekings, Peter
Subject: Re: Confidential reports - agreement to differ!
Of course we will agree to differ. I'm used to being in a minority of one! :-)
There does appear to be a blurred line between what is a policy and what is an administrative decision - is it only an administrative decision perhaps until a relevant policy of the council changes? In the end all decision making must stem from policy or regulation.
I'm glad the new guidelines seem to be moving items from the confidential agenda - as you know it has always been something of an issue for me. Do you know if and where I can view these new guidelines?
As regards a laptop for me - you've now worried me that after all these months of leading me to believe otherwise the council will still be insisting councillors will have to sign the same Internal IT usage forms as any other employee. If this is the final word then I will have to consider registering a dispute situation with you over the matter. I will discuss this with you at another time.
One final point - if it can be shown that this new policy is ineffective (ie - there is still the occasional leak and the reports - despite what is being said of the process - can be shown to be capable of being copied or printed out) would that mean reverting to our less inconvenient original policy until such time as you can find another more suitable method?
----- Original Message -----
From: Weatherley, David
To: Chris Cooke
Cc: Lloyd-Williams, Philip ; Briggs, Kevin ; Cook, Ron ; Seekings, Peter
Sent: Thursday, March 23, 2006 4:17 PM
Subject: RE: Confidential reports
Dear Chris, Further to my earlier e-mail , I will try to address your concerns in more detail. Can I first re-emphasise that this is an administrative not a policy decision. It does not therefore require a Council decision since, as I've already said, we are all under a duty to protect the Council's interests. How we do that may be a matter of debate; whether we do it is not. I'm advised the method we have adopted is the simplest and most effective available given the technology and software used by the Council. Consultation with everyone affected would not therefore seem to serve any useful purpose.The intention is to safeguard the transmission of confidential electronic documents. It applies to officers as well as to Members and is not meant to indicate mistrust of either. Rather, it is a prudent and simple way of ensuring only those with a right to see and open documents can do so. It further prevents anyone from printing and/or distributing documents if they don't have permission so to do. It is a simple response to an identified risk in the way we distribute all information, but particularly, sensitive documentation. As I've already said, the point about the risk of financial or other damage is a real one whether or not any damage has occurred. The essence of risk management is about understanding the risk and taking action to mitigate against it. Taking your example about xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. Fortunately, this hasn't happened but they were very annoyed at our lack of security around information distribution and could have followed that course of action. I hope from this you can see I am not exaggerating the possible consequences of a leak. I think I've already dealt with your next point so I won't dwell on it here. Suffice it to say the amount of time you will need to spend on any report will depend on its content. Two of those confidential items on last Monday's agenda were very simple issues which I am sure were not a real challenge to your powers of understanding. As I've already said, officers are available to help interpret more complex issues. I hope the new guidelines will reduce still further the need for confidential reports and know that at least two have recently been moved into the public arena by the Monitoring Officer. I won't dwell on the issue of laptops except to say you are alone in not accepting the terms under which everyone else operates. That is, of course, entirely a matter for you to decide upon and I respect your position on the matter even if I find it difficult to agree with. The fact that you are in a minority of one does not mean your views are invalid but as with so much in our society, it is the views of the majority which tend to prevail. There is, however, no hidden agenda to force you to have a laptop. It was a decision of the Council to have laptops and budgets were set on the basis of projected savings arising from that decision. I simply don't have the resources to design distribution systems around the personal preferences of individuals. Chris, I don't believe you are simply being awkward as it is clear you have some very strong personal beliefs. I hope you will accept the same of me. This may be one of those occasions on which we have to agree to disagree. That said, I would be happy to try to help should you have any serious difficulties in carrying out your duties as an elected Member because you cannot access essential information. Regards David
Thank you again for your prompt response to my email.
I have read and considered your reply. Clearly as an individual councillor I hold little or no sway in any final decision over how councillors are treated in matters such as these. I do wonder though that proposals weren't first put out to councillors for consultation.
A face to face meeting I don't think would allow any more detail than discussion by email. Clearly I have my perspective and you have yours. I wonder if there is any actual or estimated figures of any loss suffered by the council as a result of any confidentiality leaks to date?
Your statement "These are currently few and far between and likely to become smaller in number under the new guidelines for exempt information.Your contention that you will be required to spend many hours in front of a screen is not, therefore, very convincing." leaves me a little confused. Do you mean the leaks are few and far between - or the amount of confidential items on agendas? There were three confidential reports in the last cabinet meeting alone. How can we follow any debate (not that much debate actually happens in our one party Cabinet System!) if we do not have the document in front of us to refer to? Are the new guidelines in paper form yet - and can we have a copy? If we are supplied documents at the meeting (will we be supplied documents at meetings if asked for?) do we have to hand it back afterwards? And how can I "understand" the issues on these three reports unless I spend considerable time reading them - as opposed to flicking over them.
Clearly if there was a real problem - with tangible evidence of adverse effects - then I might reluctantly accept measures as you propose here. But I really don't see the need. Therefore I feel that it is just another way of obstructing the work and demoralising and depressing the spirit of councillors. Once you allowed the subject of CRB checks - another method of internal controls - to be debated at a full council. I feel this issue should too. Already the actions of leaking confidential documents would appear to breach the members code of conduct - perhaps you could strengthen this by suggesting various sanctions and urging the standards committee to take a hard line on offenders?
You probably know my position on road humps too - and this is very similar in principle. Why should everybody have to suffer for the wrongful actions of a tiny minority - and then the very thing that is introduced will have little or no effect on the original problem (for I'm sure the leaks will continue from time to time without this action making any difference at all - just as the worst speeding offenders treat road humps as an opportunity to fly!) ? And so I'm left with the conclusion that this new policy must be there more to force councillors to use their laptops than for any other reason (does it give us higher marks on our CPA?).
On the matter of a laptop for myself. You are right to assume I do not want a laptop - I feel that - and the special line to my home - is a waste of public money when I already have all the facilities I need. However with the way in which the council is limiting information to internal council laptop holders it appears I am forced to accept a laptop and so accept it I must. However - the reason why I do not currently have a laptop is down to a different reason entirely - to my refusal to sign the forms involved which are clearly aimed at employees and are an infringement of the rights of councillors. I am extremely concerned for instance about the lack of confidentiality around the privileged communications of councillors between themselves and with residents. The restrictions as to use also create problems. I have discussed these with IT (xxxxx xxxxxx) and they have accepted that a new document should be drawn up for councillors. This was due originally in December but I have still not seen it produced. I wonder if it will ever come! Until then I am working under a distinct disadvantage. But this is a different matter.
I think what you are saying is that regardless of the points I have made - valid points - you are charged with having to do something more to protect council confidentiality. My position is that the leaks (or those that I know about anyway) have to date not resulted in any financial loss to the council - and councillors (and officers) should be trusted. I know it's an imperfect world - but I do believe that trust is important. You could of course iron out all trust from the relationships we have with each other. The result would be an extremely regulated society, run inefficiently and at enormous cost - and probably resentment. Compulsory ID cards for instance would be a feature - and I oppose those too. You will know from the past that on the council I buck at such things - like compulsory CRB checks or production of driving documents for expense claims. It is not the society I want to live in. Therefore I do not perceive this new policy as purely an administrative issue but a point of political principle. You probably think I'm just being awkward!
----- Original Message -----
From: Weatherley, David
To: Chris Cooke ; Briggs, Kevin
Cc: Seekings, Peter ; Lloyd-Williams, Philip ; Cook, Ron
Sent: Thursday, March 23, 2006 8:46 AM
Subject: RE: Confidential reports
Thank you for your copy e-mail addressed to Kevin Briggs. I would be happy to discuss this issue in detail with you if you so wish but I think you need to retain a degree of perspective here. There have been leaks in the past which could have had serious financial consequences to the Council. Both officers and Members have a duty to protect the Council's interests whilst maintaining an openness which the public is entitled to expect. As with most things in life, there is a balance to be struck. We have taken action to reduce the risk of both officers and Members who may be so inclined to leak confidential documents. These are currently few and far between and likely to become smaller in number under the new guidelines for exempt information.Your contention that you will be required to spend many hours in front of a screen is not, therefore, very convincing. If you come to a meeting of a committee of which you are a member, you should already have seen the report and could obtain a hard copy should you need it. Should you attend a meeting of which you are not a member, you will have seen the report and been able to carry out any further work you need to do to understand the issue. I'm at a loss as to why you feel you need to print papers for a meeting at which you would not normally be allowed to speak and for which you had already had the opportunity to understand the issue being debated. I don't understand how this would disadvantage you in any way or prevent you from functioning as an elected Member. On the point about your lack of a laptop, I assume this is due to a decision made by you and one which you could reverse. Finally, this is an administrative issue which, in my view, does not need a Council decision. I am , however, more than willing to debate how the same objectives can be achieved in a different way. I would be failing in my duties if I simply ignored this issue and serious harm came to the Council as a result. As ever, I'm open to suggestions.
From: Chris Cooke [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: 22 March 2006 17:52
To: Briggs, Kevin
Cc: Seekings, Peter; Lloyd-Williams, Philip; Weatherley, David; Cook, Ron
Subject: Re: Confidential reports
As briefly discussed with you at Monday's Cabinet meeting. Could you tell me what arrangements would be made for me to receive confidential items? I'm assuming that they will only be available to councillors with laptops and you will not be sending them to my personal computer.
On the issue itself I would like to make it clear that I do not support this policy. I am copying this to the chief executive and the towns legal officer and to the two party leaders to give my reasons and comments - which are as follows.
1. This has been a very long time coming and in-between time we have had another unsatisfactory arrangement - which although cumbersome at least had the saving grace of being able to work.
2. A read-only document would mean many more hours in front of a screen. I do not believe this can be healthy for body or eyes.
3. I print off my documents now before coming to Council meetings. I would find a laptop cumbersome - particularly from the viewing seats of the public area. Anyway, I do not - as you know - have any laptop facilities.
4. The obsession with secrecy within the Council goes beyond reasonableness. There are a number of points.
i. There have only been three "leaks" that I have been aware of since I became a councillor three years ago. One I'm informed was by xxxxxxxxxxx- and he did it as a matter of principle. Another was by Council mistake. And a third was by person(s) unknown (xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx).
ii. Regardless of the read-only format the confidential items will still be produced to some extent in paper form.
iii. Regardless of the read-only format, information may still be passed verbally or even by direct access allowed to laptops.
iv. I don't claim to be a genius on computers but I think that even I, if I wanted to, could get round the "read-only" status and be able to get print outs. Would it be made a breach of the members codes of conduct to do this?
v. Much within confidential reports (95%?) is not confidential in any case - and only made so by associating it with some item or fact that could be described as properly confidential.
5. This action shows a lack of trust in councillors. This is not something that will help with the public image of the council.
6. You will have noticed many councillors preferring to work from paper rather than their laptops. This is for the very good reason that it is far quicker and easier to flick through paper rather than scroll through documents. (On the other hand a "find" mechanism in the programme could allow some things to be found faster.)
7. Where a councillor prefers to work by laptop, then fine - but otherwise they should be allowed to work as they feel most comfortable. I feel that a sub-purpose to this policy is to force reticent councillors into using their laptops. I do not agree that this policy should be imposed almost by subterfuge in this way.
8. The underlying assumption here appears to be that it is mainly councillors who are responsible for the leaks. I do not believe that is a justifiable or fair assumption.
I don't know who has been involved with, made and approved this policy, but I ask that if this is going to become the policy of this council then it should first be given a proper airing at a full council meeting. I do think that it is in any case open to challenge.
Cllr Chris Cooke.
----- Original Message -----
From: Briggs, Kevin
To: Councillors ; email@example.com
Cc: Weatherley, David ; Lloyd-Williams, Philip ; Democratic Services
Sent: Friday, March 17, 2006 2:45 PM
Subject: Confidential reports
In order to improve on security of confidential information, all confidential reports sent to Members will now be security enabled. This means that all agendas which contain confidential reports will now be “read only” documents and they will not be able to be printed or copied. In the event that your laptop is not working or you are unable to open the document, please contact me so that temporary alternative arrangements can be made.
Democratic Services Manager
(: 01827 709262
Fax: 01827 709271