No publicity please
I wasn’t going to do a new entry just yet, but on checking my facebook account just before turning in, I spotted that someone had crossposted to the news story today about 10 Downing Street using false names on letters to members of the public (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13364121).
No.10 has explained this as a health & safety measure, following an incident where a member of the public communications team was traced by a member of the public and threatened at her home. So I can relate to this. Many years ago when I worked in the “old” DHSS, management toyed with the idea of introducing name badges, and the union was prepared to compromise with false names mainly for the same reason. In the Really Olden Times, civil servants were not supposed to give their names to members of the public at all, on the grounds that doing such would imply that you could get preferential treatment by developing a working relationship with a specific named individual. Furthermore, in a situation where staff were rotated to different duties every six months or so to stop them getting stale and to give them wider experience of the work of the whole office, the last thing you want is to have members of the public ringing in saying “Mr.A is dealing with my case” and insisting on speaking to Mr.A when Mr.A no longer had anything to do with it.
Where No.10 went wrong is in admitting that there is no such person as “Mrs. E. Adams”.
But if you’re going to have a nom de plume, then you should be using it 100% during working hours. Authors don’t stop answering to their pen names from time to time (except for people like the science fiction author Lionel Fanthorpe, who has forgotten how many he ever had!), so I don’t understand why No.10 admitted that there was no “Mrs. Adams” instead of either putting Gerald Kaufman in touch with “Mrs. Adams” or saying “She’s been moved to other duties” – which may well be entirely true. It actually looks as though they actually went to the extent of having a system that generated false names and signatures. I’d be suspicious of any signature that was as clear as that: my “official” DHSS signature was pretty well unreadable.
In later years, when I wrote to members of the public on behalf of the Director General of Water Services, I was identifiable and generally rather more in tune with the spirit of open government. (Though I did have a macro on my computer that started a letter for me: “Thank you for your letter to the Director General of Water Services, Ian Byatt. He has asked me to reply…”, which was quite true. Well, not quite. I wasn’t called into Ian’s office to have him wave a letter at me and say “Robert, I’d like you to answer this for me…”; rather, I was given the job, and an Act of Parliament empowered me to do that job on the DG’s behalf, so I was telling the truth. It was a useful macro, because it gave me an opening to the letter and some useful thinking time.)
Despite what I’ve said above – and which I stand by – I would however take the attitude that having a fake correspondent generator was just plain daft. Far easier to have staff select an “official” name if that was an issue for them (as long as it wasn’t D.Duck…).
(PS: I seem to be missing something – either it’s too late at night for me to suss it out, or WordPress has forgotten about the existence of paragraph breaks. Sorry for the undigestible wodge of text.)